SIDNEY — Chris Niswonger, the now retired assistant chief of the B-crew of the Sidney Department of Fire & Emergency Services, is excited to see what the “next half” of his story holds traveling America’s back roads during retirement. July 3 was his last day with the department.
Days filled with being in nature, going kayaking, hiking, camping, or traveling, and spending time with family is on the horizon, Niswonger said.
“We always talked about things (he and his wife) wanted to do, and some of that stuff was starting to come off the list and couldn’t do them. I look at it as the first half of the book is over now, and it’s time to write the second half,” he said of retiring after over 27 years with Sidney Fire. “I just woke up one day and decided to set the day. We all were about to celebrate Independence Day on July 4, and I decided July 3 would mark my ‘Independence Day.’”
Originally, his plan was to retire in April 2021, but after a culmination of various things, Niswonger decided to retire ahead of his scheduled plan, and enjoy the summer with his wife, Laura, who is a first-grade teacher with summers off.
“I was kind of beat up (emotionally) and wore out. And I knew Chief Jones was going to retire in October, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me, if I retire now, that would give them a few months to get another assistant chief in on his feet and get that command leadership team in place. — Kind of like a succession planning,” Niswonger said. “And I talked it over with Laura, my wife, and we decided — because I was going to retire in the spring anyway — that a few months isn’t going to make that big of a difference. And we decided to spend the summer together.”
Being the shift commander of Sidney Fire’s B-crew, which is comprised of 10 firefighter/paramedics, was a huge responsibility Niswonger always took very seriously.
“I think everyone knows when you are in a position like that, to where you are worried about (firefighters’) safety every third day, you have to make a decision of whether you are going to send this 23-year-old kid into a house that everyone else has ran out of. And you have to make that split-second decision that ‘I think it is safe enough that I’m going to send you in.’ — That wears on you,” Niswonger said. “And, I’ve been through a lot. I was a firefighter/paramedic. I’ve had a lot of major incidents we have seen, and I just woke up one day and didn’t have a desire to go to work, and I’ve never had that. I was mentally out of gas.”
And he also lamented the inevitable change in the department many other firefighters his age retiring.
“All of the guys that I was close with, that were my age, that I have worked with, are now gone. Now I have (firefighters) that are my kids’ age or younger than my kids (in the department),” he said. “I think they were surprised, because I initially talked about April (to retire), but it was not too much of a surprise.”
The last day on the job brought excitement but also a huge sense of relief to know no one on his crew was hurt on his watch.
Over the years, since beginning as a volunteer with the New Carlisle Fire Department in 1990, he said things have certainly changed with fire advancements in technology; medical equipment, including cardiac monitors; new medications administered on the scene; confined space and water rescues; as well as training.
“It’s not just dragging a hose into a burning building,” Niswonger said.
Since joining Sidney Fire in 1993, Niswonger was promoted to lieutenant in 2006, to a fire prevention officer in 2008, became a shift lieutenant in 2009, and then finally to assistant chief in 2012. During his time as a fire investigator, Niswonger said it was a house fire involving the loss of three children of a single mother that stood out to him the most.
“I will never forget the fire involving three kids on Mason Road in the mid-2000s. This fire burnt down to where the house was literally a foot high. And I was in charge of the fire investigation and we brought in the state Fire Marshall’s office,” he said. “I remember going back to the fire station in the middle of the night, and I was sitting in a recliner. And I couldn’t sleep, and I was so overwhelmed in my mind of how I was going to find these children for her (the mother). Am I going to find these children for her? — Because I didn’t know if there was going to be anything left. But the next day we did recover all three children. That was probably the hardest one, of the eight fire fatalities over my career. You put yourself in her shoes, as I have kids.”
He also recalled working 17-hours on the Stolle Warehouse fire in December 2004 as being the largest fire he ever encountered. The greatest compliment he recalled was when a woman Sidney firefighters helped a few years ago told of remembering the great service Niswonger provided to help her 23 years earlier.
Niswonger said he is honored to have worked as a Sidney firefighter/paramedic and is very proud of B-crew’s teamwork and success.
“They were the best crew I ever had,” Niswonger said. “I will miss the camaraderie working with the guys and the pride of seeing them do a good job.”
Fire Chief Brad Jones said, “AC Niswonger was a dedicated leader for the department for the past 27 years. Chris expertly filled multiple leadership positions over the years, and his professional approach to everything he did will be missed.”
Mayor Mike Barhorst said, “A consummate professional, Assistant Fire Chief Chris Niswonger has been a firefighter since 1993, and has served as an assistant chief for the past eight years. During his career, Chris has made countless emergency runs, has written too many reports to count, and been a true inspiration to those who have served with him. On behalf of City Council and the residents of our community he has so faithfully served, I wish him well in retirement.”
“There is so much you miss with your kids and family that you can’t get back (with this career). … Over the last 27 years, I’ve basically missed one-third of our marriage,” Niswonger said. “We love to kayak, like to hike and camp. We bought a Jeep and are going to travel America on back and dirt roads, and forest roads. That is kind of our dream. To get to these remote places and camp on these beautiful spots where no one else is there, while we are still able to.”
Reach the writer at 937-538-4823.