19-year MFD veteran retires

In 1994, when Lt. Wayne Sawtelle was a rookie, firefighters wore white canvas bunker gear. You could tell how long someone had been with the department by how dark the black patina covering their gear was. His first day on the job, a fire broke out at the Sutherland coal plant.

“I was happy to get that gear dirty the first day,” he said. “With brand new gear, you stick out like a sore thumb.”

Now, more than 19 years later, Sawtelle is set to retire from the Marshalltown Fire Department. However, it wasn’t his choice. After a review, the state handed down the mandate Friday.

Sawtelle has been having problems with blurry vision and dizziness. He has sought diagnostic expertise at the Mayo Clinic. However, his declining health has rendered him unable to continue performing as a firefighter.

It’s difficult to be forced into retirement, but at least it’s on a more positive note, said Marshalltown Fire Chief Steve Edwards. Edwards said the fire department has already submitted its promotion list to the Civil Service Commission as well as its new hire list.

“It puts a void in our department, especially when it’s one from the officer’s ranks,” he said. “We will move forward. All of us like to think that when we leave, things will fall apart, but actually it’s not. Our people are going to be here.”

Sawtelle has been working light duty, helping with inspections, but the state has deemed that he is no longer fit for duty. The news was a hard pill to swallow, he said.

Edwards said Sawtelle has done well to pass on his wealth of experience to those who have worked beneath him. Although the state’s announcement that Sawtelle would retire came suddenly, he said the department will adapt.

In Sawtelle’s nearly two decades at the MFD, there have been many things – for better and for worse – that he will never forget. Because a large portion of the fire department calls are calls for EMS service, Sawtelle said many of the calls that stick out in his mind are those the ended with a child’s death.

“I can see the kids’ faces,” he said.

On the more positive side, he said he will carry the camaraderie he forged with his fellow workers onward into retirement. He said it’s what he will miss the most. It’s hard to walk away from people with whom he has spent so much time. Because firefighters work 24 hours straight then take 48 hours off, it’s not like a typical 40-hour-a-week job. He has slept in the bunk next to them. He has eaten dinner with them. He has played basketball with them.

His involvement with the firefighters union, acting as its vice president where he worked with the legislature, is also a point of pride for Sawtelle.

But with his retirement imminent, Sawtelle can begin thinking about spending more time with his wife of 35 years, Ann, and his two daughters, ages 24 and 28. He said he plans to remain active in the public service forum.

The MFD will hold a retirement reception 10 a.m. to noon Thursday at the fire house, 107 S. First Ave. The public is invited to come enjoy some cake, punch and coffee and say goodbye to Sawtelle and welcome him to retirement.