Steele turns in turn-out gear
By By LYDIA GRIMES – Features writer
The Brewton Fire Department has lost one of its valued employees, but happily it is because of his retirement.
Michael Steele is hanging up his hat and has decided that it is time for him to take it a bit easier. From now on he will only hold down one job – one that is going to make life less hectic and busy.
The fire department has been a big part of Steele's life for the past 26 years, and he will probably find that he misses going to that brick building on St. Nicholas Avenue. On the flip side, he will still be busy with his second job with Alabama Power Company.
Being a fireman is not an easy job. It swings from being dangerous, to times when the only thing to do is work around the fire department building.
When Steele began working for the fire department in 1979 things were a bit different than they are today. The staff was not so big and training was not as extensive as it is now. At that time, John Martin was the fire chief and his assistant was Alvin Settles. It was under the instruction of Settles and Bay Minette Fire Chief Tim Blakemore that Steele took his first instruction of 240 hours, and the training was done in the Brewton station. Now that training is done elsewhere, and the number of hours is more.
The fire department was made up of eight full time firemen and 10 to 12 volunteers. Today, the fire department is staffed by 10 full time employees and 15 to 20 volunteers.
Lawrence Weaver became the fire chief in 1998 and although he jokes and pokes a little fun at Steele, he truly appreciates the years of service that Steele has devoted to the department.
"He has been a very dependable worker," Weaver said. "He has only missed a couple of days of work in all these years,"
There have been some dramatic moments in Steele's career. Some have been sad, while some have been scary, even funny. When the men gather in the lounge of the fire department, they can tell some pretty good stories. Leon Hamric laughs as he recalled one experience when he was working on the roof of a burning building.
"I was using my ax to make a hole in the roof," he said. "All of a sudden, my ax flew out of my hands and went right through the hole down into the building. I had to wait until the fire was out and then go look for my ax. It was very embarrassing."
Steele jumped in and told a couple of stories about things that have happened to him.
"I guess the worst was one time when I got hung up in the attic of a house was on fire," he said. "My training kicked in and I was able to get out of the situation. You never know what you will run into when you are called out on a fire."
Then there was the night when it was very cold and one fireman thought he had roof tar dripping off his head. The whole department got a good laugh off him when it was discovered that it was water that had turned into icicles. One of the scariest memories several of the firemen recalled was when the old IGA building on St. Nicholas burned.
Everybody thought they had the fire under control until all the walls began to collapse around them.
"The city has a good fire department working for them," Steele said. "The public may not know it, but the department works really hard and does a good job."
The full time firemen of the department work shifts of 24 hours on duty and 48 off duty. They wear many hats. Not only do they take care of fires but they also do a lot of public relation work with safety sessions and distribute smoke alarms. They also do a lot of fire department maintenance – making sure the trucks are kept in good working order, the grass is cut and the building is kept in order.
Steele was born and reared in this area and descends from some of the oldest settlers in Escambia County. He is one of five children born to David and Lucille Steele. His father was a barber for many years and also ran a small farm. These environments kept him busy in his early years when he did chores around the farm and shined shoes in his father's barber shop from the time he was 10 until he was 15. At the age of 15, he began working at White's Auto Parts and later at the Western Auto store that was downtown.
He attended North Brewton School and graduated from W.S. Neal High School in 1973. He was a good student and graduated fourth in his class. After high school graduation, he attended Jefferson Davis and earned an associate's degree in science in 1976. He began at Ed Reid Technical College but was forced to drop out because his father got very sick and then died.
During his time of transition, he spoke with Lawrence Weaver who was a fireman with the Brewton Fire Department, and Weaver persuaded him to become a volunteer fireman in early 1979. Later that year he was able to go to a full-time position, and for the past 26 years he has continued to work in the department.
In 1994 he went to work as a contractor for Alabama Power delivering and setting up appliances. He will continue with this job now that he is retired from the fire department.
"At least I won't be working all the time," he said. "I want to spend more time with my family and do some fishing, as well as do more 'yard sales,' which is something I love to do."
His comment regarding the yard sales brought forth a laugh from the other firemen, and especially his son, Edmond Steele, who just happens to be a volunteer fireman himself. Edmond went to work at the department in 1999 and had already found out his passion in life. He received EMT training and an emergency vehicle operator course. It ultimately led him to the decision to earn his associate's degree in nursing and to continue his education to become a nurse practitioner's license.
"I want to do at least that much," he said. "I would like to go on and go to medical school and become a doctor."
He is married and has two children, while his father has two children and three grandchildren.