Ludington Fire Chief Funk, 50 years of dedicated service.

June 3, 2020

Ludington Fire Chief Jerry Funk

Ludington Fire Chief Funk, 50 years of dedicated service.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

LUDINGTON — Almost every weekday morning, Ludington Fire Chief Jerry Funk can be found in his office of the new Ludington Fire Department station on Tinkham Avenue. The new station is just one of the many changes Funk, 73, has seen in his 50 year career as a Ludington firefighter. He has served as fire chief since 1994.

“It’s a commitment,” he says. “It’s a family commitment. If your family isn’t behind you, don’t even try it. If you’re at your kid’s ball game and the pager goes off, you have to leave. If you are out to dinner with your wife and the pager goes off, you’re going. Without having the family backing you, it’s impossible to do.”

Ludington Fire Department, like all 11 fire departments in Mason County (and 85% of departments in the U.S.) is a “volunteer” fire department. The firefighters get paid, but serving on the department is not a full-time job. Instead, the firefighters are paged out to calls, leaving work or family activities to save lives and property.

Funk’s family moved to Ludington from Wisconsin in 1960. He says while living in Wisconsin, his best friend’s dad was the local fire chief, which is what got him interested in being on the fire department. “He had a bell at his house that would go off whenever there was a fire. It just stuck with me. When I got a chance to get on I did.”

Funk joined LFD in June 1970. Just over a month later, on July 24, 1970, he went to his first major fire. Fort Ludington, located on the southwest corner of Ludington Avenue and James Street, was destroyed by fire.

“I rode to that fire with Mike McDonald in the county truck,” Funk recalls. “When we got there I grab a booster hose (a small diameter hose). Mike said, ‘oh no, this one will take the big stuff.” McDonald served on the department for 36 years, serving as chief from 1990 to 1994 before retiring. Funk proceeded him.

Since that time, Funk has seen his share of devastating fires. None, as tragic as the Feb. 28, 1993 fire at 208 N. James Street where eight children and one 18-year-old adult were killed.

“That is something that everybody will remember,” Funk says solemnly. “That was a rough one. Many of us had kids the same ages as those kids who died in that fire. We’ve had other fatal fires since then, but nothing compares to the James Street fire.”

There have been a lot of milestones at Ludington Fire Department in the last five decades. Funk says when he joined, firefighters were given a large radio box that would sit somewhere in their house. Emergency calls were placed by calling the Mason County Sheriff’s Office (there wasn’t a 911 phone number). The sheriff’s office would then page out the fire departments.

“You would have to train your babysitter how to use the box, to write down all the information dispatched out and then you would have to leave a phone number of the place you were at, we didn’t have cell phones back then. If you were in the city, the siren would blow three times, indicating that there was a fire somewhere. We would get to the old city hall on Rath Avenue and the police would write the address of the call on a chalkboard.”

In the late ‘70s, the boxes were replaced by pagers. In 1995, Mason and Oceana counties formed Mason-Oceana 911. Today, firefighters still use pagers but also receive emergency dispatches on their mobile phones.

In the early 1970s there weren’t 11 fire departments in Mason County like there are now. Pere Marquette Township Fire Department and Riverton Township Fire Department were not started until the mid-1970s. Instead, those areas were covered by Ludington Fire Department and Scottville Fire Department. Mason County supplied each of the departments with a truck to be used on calls in the rural areas.

“We would go out to fires in Riverton, along with Scottville Fire Department, and we didn’t have tanker trucks like the departments have now. So, farmers would come out with their cherry tankers to supply us with water,” Funk says.

Some other milestones have included:

  • The creation of the Western Mason County Fire District in 1996, which is funded by a special mileage in Ludington, Pere Marquette Township and Hamlin Township. The mileage pays for all equipment used by those three fire departments.
  • Addition of a a rescue/Jaws of Life unit which responds to injury vehicle crashes in Ludington and several townships. Prior to this, the only Jaws of Life unit was operated by volunteer reserve deputies from the Mason County Sheriff’s Office. Several other fire departments also have Jaws of Life units.
  • Two new fire stations. The first was built at the northeast corner of Loomis and Robert streets in 1977. Its replacement, located at 918 E. Tinkham Ave., was opened in April 2019 and was built at a cost of $1.2 million.
  • Addition of medical first responder calls (this service was started by rural fire departments in the early 1980s, but has only been a part of LFD’s regular service for about 10 years. Funk says medical calls now account for over 70% of the department’s responses. In 2019 there were over 400 medical calls.
  • Increase in training requirements.
  • First female Ludington firefighter, Becky Caine, in 2017.

While Funk has served on the department for 50 years, he is the highest seniority person by only one year. Assistant Chief Ron Jabrocki has served for 49 years as has Captain Fred Hackert. Lieutenant Bruce Pelletier has served for 42 years. Other officers John Henderson has been on the department for 28 years and Andy Larr for 22. That’s 240 years of experience in the command structure of the department.

Funk says that he and the other senior officers have begun taking the approach of letting the “younger” guys lead more.

“I know this department will continue to run when I’m not here, just as it did when the chiefs before me left,” Funk says. “It will also be in good hands.”

While Funk isn’t worried about the department’s continuation, he does worry about the lack of interest in people wanting to join. Currently, LFD has 17 firefighters with the allowance by the City of Ludington for 20.

“We used to have a waiting list,” he says. “Nowadays, it seems that a lot of employers won’t let their employees leave for fire calls. It really has created a challenge.”

The increase in training has also hindered people from joining. Funk says when he joined in 1970 there was no formal training program. The first organized training, a 66 hour course, took place in 1975. Since that time, a new firefighter must complete over 300 hours of state-certified training within two years of joining the department. In addition, medical first responders must take an 80-hour class and re-certify with continuing education credits. Additional trainings are required for vehicle extrication and officer classes. Plus, the fire department has two meetings/trainings per month.

“It’s a big commitment,” Funk says. “The training is important but also creates challenges for recruitment.”

Regardless, those who do make the commitment join a family that takes care of itself. That was evident to Funk last month when his wife of nearly 54 years, Marsha, passed away.

“They had my back,” Funk says. “There was a night when I had to call 911 and within minutes my guys were here. Since Marsha’s death, my fire family has taken care of me, bringing me meals, stopping by.” Funk says it was even more challenging because of the stay-at-home order. He, along with the other senior officers, are of the high-risk age and chose to not respond to calls for a few months. “Being here is what helps me get through this,” he says of his wife’s passing.

Funk says he currently doesn’t have plans to retire. “I’m going to stay here as long as I physically can,” he says. “Besides, I still get excited when that pager goes off.”

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