It’s not often that a person gets swept up in a single moment and taken on a decades long journey of public service that touches countless lives and shapes one of the key municipal organs of any community, but that’s exactly what happened to now retired Dexter Area Fire Chief Loren Yates.
Yates, who announced his retirement over a year ago and submitted his letter of resignation last September, began as a paid on-call member of Dexter’s fire department in the mid-80’s. Months into his duties as a rookie, he and some friends were golfing when someone’s life was threatened.
“Someone came screaming up to the clubhouse that some girl had been hit by lightning,” Yates recalled. “We ended up doing CPR on her — a dentist from Virginia, who I heard from for eight or nine years after that … we brought her back.”
At the time Yates was merely flirting with a career change from home remodeling and general construction as an on-call firefighter earning about $2,000 per year. Once he stepped off that green, his career path was cemented.
“It propelled me,” Yates said. “In two years I was a lieutenant, and just got really involved in firefighting from there,” and in 1999 he was tapped as the Dexter Area Fire Department’s chief.
Dexter for life
It never even occurred to Yates to move to another department anywhere else. Dexter was very clearly his one and only home both personally and professionally.
“I’m proud to say I’ve worked in Dexter my entire career,” Yates said with a grin of certainty and pride. When asked if he ever even considered going somewhere else for a moment, he quickly replied, “Nope — I love Dexter.”
During his decades in Dexter, Yates has been Dexter Village President twice, Chairman of the Dexter Planning Commission, and Chairman of the Dexter Daze committee. During his second term as president in 1999 he stepped out of village government to take his place as Dexter Area Fire Department Fire Chief.
During his 16 year tenure as the department’s leader, Yates was very successful in getting support from either the local governments that the Dexter area’s fire department has served over the years, the community organizations outside of the world of local governance, or both.
Dexter’s fire department was the first in the county to have defibrillators, which the Dexter Kiwanis Club paid for by taking out a loan.
“I went to the Kiwanis and they asked us what we need and that was the number one thing, because we were on more medicals than anything else,” Yates said. “They ended up borrowing money for it, because back then it was a $12,000 piece of equipment.”
Dexter’s fire department was also the first to get involved in ice water rescue, the first to use fire extinguishing foam as a replacement for pure water, and the first swift water rescue capable department in the county due to the proximity of the Huron River to Dexter. DAFD has also been a leader in regional response for most of Yates’ tenure, forming close and highly functional working relationships with fellow departments throughout Washtenaw County.
“We were always and still have been ahead of the game, as far as being proactive on anything we can do to save a life,” he said. “The foam’s a big deal right now, because one tank of foam equals 30,000 gallons of water, and a single guy can carry a two-and-a-half inch line by himself. It really does the job as far as putting fires out goes, and it saves on property damage because you don’t have all of that water going into structures.”
All about saving lives
Yates still plans on stopping into the fire house on a regular basis, since it’s difficult to stay away from a place that’s been so significant a part of your life, not to mention all of the positive memories of helping people and saving lives.
“Any time you make a save, it feels good,” Yates said. “I’ve gotten seven or eight in a row before, which is unusual, but of course you lose 150 on the way there, but that’s just what happens.”
For Yates, the tornado that hit Dexter on March 15, 2012 was the most demanding situation that he has ever faced as the DAFD’s top command officer. Although the department has come a long way since it was doing 300 runs per year with a $300,000 yearly budget to its current 1,200 runs and $1.5 million budget, it was still no match on its own for the massive F-3 tornado that destroyed more than 100 homes.
“Even though we’ve grown quite a lot with the support of the Dexter community, we’re still a small department,” Yates said. He expressed gratitude that will be with him for the rest of his life for everyone who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him and his men during what would be the most trying experience of their firefighting careers.
Before he knew what the department was dealing with, Yates was in the middle of a call that the roof had been ripped from an area home by bad weather when it was revealed that it would be one of many homes touched by a much more serious weather related threat.
“When I realized that this was not just an isolated incident, I diverted and went to the fire hall to set up a command structure,” Yates recalled. “We received so much help from other departments, whether it was police, fire or EMS.”
The command structure that Yates set up in town rapidly coordinated the deployment of regional emergency response resources so efficiently and effectively that nobody was seriously injured in the tornado and all structures were cleared by midnight.
“It was just an absolutely wonderful effort on the part of everyone surrounding us — not just the fire departments, but police and EMS too,” he said. “And also by the community. What we saw from regular Dexter residents in the time that followed was incredible.”
While the tornado response was a great example of a fire department’s organizational structure working to perfection with a regional cooperative effort coalesced around it in the best possible way that it could have, Yates says that a more recent incident on North Territorial Road will stick with him as a high note of his career.
Last December Yates and his firefighters saved a man on North Territorial who was not breathing. Shortly afterwards, he received a handwritten thank you letter from the man’s wife accompanied by a photocopy of a family Christmas card with the man, his wife and children pictured in the card together thanks to the efforts that saved him.
“I went in on a happy note (in reference to the golf course save at his career’s start),” Yates said. “And I’m going out on a happy note — there’s nothing better than saving somebody’s life. Whether it’s a person or someone’s cat or dog, there’s not a better feeling in the world.”
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Below is a gallery of photos taken at Loren Yates’ home in Webster Township on Friday, July 10 that include his wife Zaidee and grandson Reed.