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Deputy Chief Ralph Tartaglia has helped the Roanoke department keep up with the changes to professional firefighting.
SAM OWENS | The Roanoke Times
Jeff Beckner (left) will replace Ralph Tartaglia as the deputy chief of the Roanoke Fire and EMS Department. Beckner says Tartaglia has helped build a strong department, which will allow him to focus on preparing for challenges the firefighters may face in the years to come.
SAM OWENS | The Roanoke Times
Deputy Chief Ralph Tartaglia is retiring after working since 1976 for the Roanoke Fire-EMS Department. His last day on the job will be Friday.
Thursday, June 27, 2013
Ralph Tartaglia has had the same ritual of sorts over the past 10 years.
Before putting on his boots, before putting on his coat, before flashing his lights or blaring his siren, the deputy chief of the Roanoke Fire-EMS Department stops and prays.
“Whenever we have a fire and the tones go off, I grab my radio and turn it on, and the first thing I do is say a prayer for the guys on the scene,” he said. “And then I listen.”
Tartaglia, 62, is retiring Friday after 37 years at the department. The career firefighter said he’s leaving to spend more time with his family, travel, play music and pursue volunteer work.
“I still love my job,” he said. “But after that length of time, it’s time to retire while I’m still in good health.”
Ad led to career
Tartaglia was making tires at Roanoke’s Mohawk Rubber Co. in the mid-1970s when he saw an advertisement in the newspaper seeking firefighters.
The job at Mohawk was repetitive labor, and Tartaglia couldn’t see working there forever. He’d lived across the street from the old Fire Station No. 3 on Sixth Street when his family first moved to Roanoke a little more than a decade earlier, and he saw the firefighting job as something secure for his budding family.
“My wife and I prayed about it, and the Lord opened the doors,” he said. “And as they say, the rest is history.”
When Tartaglia began working for the city Jan. 5, 1976, firefighters weren’t required to undergo any initial training.
“When I was hired that day, I went to work that night on a fire truck,” he said. “Now you go through 19 weeks of training before you get on a truck. A lot of things have changed.”
Back then firefighters were required to buy their own protective gear, Tartaglia said. Their turnout coats were more like heavy raincoats, and their boots resembled fishing waders. Rookie firefighters would hang off the back of trucks as they raced to a fire or car crash.
Now, firefighters wear self-contained breathing apparatuses, pumpers are run by computers, and fire lines that once were essentially big garden hoses can spray 1,250 gallons of water a minute.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is the danger.
“You still have to have somebody put the wet stuff on the red stuff,” Tartaglia said. “Somebody’s still got to go in the building. Somebody’s still got to drag the hose line. Our people still have to put themselves in jeopardy.”
Tartaglia’s wife, Sharon, said she accepted her husband’s hazardous profession through faith in God.
“When they leave in the morning, you would just not even think about what they were going to do, because if you sat and thought about it you’d go crazy,” she said. “You just kind of put that out of your mind and say, ‘OK, God’s watching him. He’ll be OK.’ ”
Remembering the wins
Tartaglia became a lieutenant in 1982 and a captain in 1985, the same year a historic flood tore through Roanoke.
No one incident stands out as particularly tragic in his nearly four decades of experience, he said. As an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, Tartaglia said witnessing tragedy “comes with the deal.”
“I saw a lot of things in Vietnam that I don’t ever want to see again,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of things in my career here that I’d rather not see again. But you deal with it. You trust in the Lord and you put it aside, because we’re here to prevent that. We’re here to stop it. You don’t focus on the losses, you focus on the wins.”
One of those wins came in the late 1980s, when Tartaglia and his crew responded to a carbon monoxide leak at a home on Memorial Avenue on a chilly October night.
When the firefighters rolled up about 2 a.m., a man was already outside on the porch holding his baby. He was disoriented, Tartaglia said, a sign of potential carbon monoxide poisoning. Inside, rescuers found the man’s wife and two other young daughters overcome by the noxious gas.
Doctors told Tartaglia, then a captain at Station No. 7, that the family likely would have been dead within minutes had the firefighters not gotten them out when they did.
Two months later, Tartaglia marched with two of the girls in the annual Grandin Road Christmas parade — Tartaglia in his uniform, the girls in red-and-green Christmas outfits with reindeer antlers on their heads.
“That’s the good things,” he said. “That’s what you remember.”
As Tartaglia thinks back on his contributions to the department, he phrases his responses like many firefighters would: “I” didn’t do anything. “We” did.
“We’ve done some great things since I’ve been in this position,” he said.
More than many professions, and more than many other city fire departments, Roanoke Fire-EMS is a
brotherhood, Tartaglia said. A camaraderie.
“What we do is very seldom an individual accomplishment,” he said. “Everything we do, we do as a team.”
He said he considers the department’s international accreditation as one of his accomplishments, along with the Class 2 rating from the Insurance Service Organization. The rating reflects the quality of the department’s infrastructure, employees, stations and equipment, and it effectively lowers insurance rates for city residents.
Chief David Hoback said Tartaglia also has added to the department’s public education programs, which he said have lowered property damage rates in the city. Tartaglia’s daughter, Tiffany Bradbury, is the department’s fire prevention specialist and helps organize the efforts.
But again, Tartaglia brushes off claims that he should take credit for any one effort.
“Those programs aren’t just me or her [Bradbury] or any one individual,” he said. “When she goes out and does a puppet show, she takes an engine company with her.”
Hoback said Tartaglia was someone who “had my back, and was one that I could trust” during the economic downturn, when the department slimmed from 14 stations to 11 and from 275 employees to 247.
He said Tartaglia was instrumental in restarting the department’s honor guard program, as well as bolstering the chaplain services offered to firefighters.
“I will tell you unequivocally, there’s not one person more in love with this department and the city of Roanoke than Chief Tartaglia,” Hoback said.
Filling the ‘big boots’
Stepping into Tartaglia’s role as deputy chief on Monday will be current battalion chief Jeff Beckner, a nearly 30-year employee of the department.
Beckner was chosen from a pool of eight candidates, Hoback said. He helped develop the city’s high-rise firefighting program, heavy technical rescue and swift water rescue guidelines as well as officer development programs, according to a Roanoke Fire-EMS news release.
Beckner, 54, said he hopes to “carry on the traditions but yet also keep ahead of the new things that are coming down the pipe.” He said he’s already working on initiatives with the Roanoke Police Department to improve emergency response protocols for mass casualty emergencies like school shootings.
Beckner said he knows he has big boots to fill.
“The big thing is, I was looking after 43 people and he looks after 250 people,” Beckner said. “I’ve told him I’m going to pay his cellphone bill for the next six months because I’m probably going to be calling him a whole lot.”
The departing chief said he has no doubts about leaving the job to Beckner, whom he called “the son he never had.”
“It’s rewarding to realize that this organization is in such good hands with the people that are here,” he said.
He said he plans to use retirement to spend more time with his wife, daughter and grandchildren, go hunting and fishing, and do work as a member of Gideons International. He also wants to spend more time singing and playing gospel music as a member of Lakeside Baptist Church.
Tartaglia will still be around the fire department for barbecues and other gatherings, Hoback said. But the veteran fireman will be involved considerably less with a part of his life he’s held for nearly four decades.
“The 28th is going to be extremely hard for him,” Hoback said. “There’s three things he loves in life. His religion first, his family second and this organization third. And he’s losing one of them.”
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