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Man looks forward to retirement without alarm

August 08, 2006|by MARLO BARNHART

The message board in the Antietam Fire Co.'s main bay says "Chopper's Last Day, Sunday, July 30."

"Mitch Gearhart gave me that nickname years ago because of motorcycles," Gary Hoffman said as he contemplated the end of his 36-year career as a Hagerstown firefighter.

Gearhart also retired a few years ago and now Hoffman said he is looking forward to seeing how it feels not to work 24-hour shifts.

A native of Williamsport, Hoffman, 59, said he was one of the first junior members of the Williamsport Volunteer Fire Department as a teen.

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"Then I went to work in the display department of Leiter Brothers Department Store in Hagerstown," Hoffman said.

Even then, he began volunteering at Pioneer Hook and Ladder Fire Co. a block away on Franklin Street.

"A man I worked with volunteered there, so I started by going over with him to eat lunch," Hoffman said.

A four-year stint with the Marines from 1966 to 1970 found Hoffman in aviation crash rescue, which allowed him to use skills he already had.

"I came back and went right into the Hagerstown Fire Department," Hoffman said.

Richard Smith, then a driver at Pioneer and later fire chief, told Hoffman there was an opening at that station. He took a written exam and had an interview with former Fire Chief John Hall.

"You learned on the job," Hoffman said. There were also classes through the University of Maryland, some in Hagerstown and some in the metropolitan area.

One of his most memorable fires was at Glick Shoes, a multistory building just west of Public Square, that burned in the early 1980s.

Hoffman literally ran up the truck ladder to rescue a baby and a woman who was afraid of heights from the front of the building on that very cold day.

"It was a good feeling - saving seven or eight people who couldn't get out," Hoffman said.

Two days later, a fire on Spruce Street claimed two lives. That's how it goes, Hoffman said.

During his 36 years, Hoffman worked as a relief driver at South End, Western Enterprise and Pioneer before he began working out of Antietam.

Happy to be a mentor to younger firefighters, Hoffman said he stresses the importance of getting into a routine.

Turnout pants sit on the floor with the boots inside ready to be stepped into while the firefighter puts on his turnout coat. Then into the truck for another step-by-step process of getting the truck ready to roll.

"I also tell them to get there quickly but to remember you want to get there," he said.

There have been big changes in training through the years, Hoffman said.

"There is more federal involvement, a lot of terrorist training as well as hazardous materials, blood-borne pathogens and confined space firefighting to deal with now," he said.

Still he wouldn't change a thing, calling his choice of profession a brotherhood more than just a job.

"If something happens to one of us, it happens to us all," Hoffman said.

Hoffman said he plans to spend more time with his three grandchildren when he is retired. He and his wife, Linda, have two children.

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