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Firefighting: More than a job; Bob Sivak reflects on service as a firefighter

Dickinson fire Department fire Chief Bob Sivak stands by a firetruck in the Public Safety Center on State Avenue. It's the building where he has his office.

Dickinson Fire Chief Bob Sivak fills his days with administrative duties, but come evenings, he sleeps with the radio turned on.

“I still hear every call,” he said. “I still get to ride the trucks, I still go on calls. I still take part of training -- generally I’m observing, but I still have an instructor’s function.”

On any given day, Sivak is filling out grant applications, writing presentations, coordinating with other city departments or addressing firehouse concerns.

He identifies with the motto printed in the department’s kitchen -- “It’s not something you do, it’s what you are.”

Sivak has been a firefighter for 39 years (35 years full time), ever since he started as a volunteer in September 1978.

“The rewards of what you do in fire service are  unlike anything else -- you can positively impact somebody… I don’t know how to explain it,” he said.

Career search

Like the other seniors in the Trinity High School class of 1974, he was looking for a career path.

“I had no idea where I was going to go or what I was going to do, but testing always pointed to public service,” he said.

After graduation, Sivak had been working for his dad, Frank J. Sivak in Sivak Construction. During a chance meeting with then Fire Chief Joe Boespflug, Sivak  asked what it would take to get hired by the fire department. So, at the age of 21, he was proposed as a volunteer by sponsor Barry Curn, who was planning to retire. Sivak got his position.

Firefighters, no matter the age or gender, have a common trait -- “It’s volunteer service to others. They want to give something back to the community and to humanity and are not looking for anything in return,” said Sivak. “We promise to take care of our citizens when they are in trouble. They don’t know and they don’t care whether the firefighter is a career firefighter or a volunteer firefighter. They just know and recognize that’s a firefighter, they are here and my day is going to be better.”

While the desire to help others has remained the same, the mission of the department has evolved.

“In 1978 we fought fires. Hazardous materials was a word just being talked about,” he said. “We’re an all-hazard fire response department -- fire suppression, prevention, public education, hazardous materials incident response -- locally  and on a  regional level. We’re one of eight department tasked with hazardous response in the state of North Dakota.”

Around Jan. 1, the responsibilities expanded again to include emergency medical response.

“Now, we’re doing medical assistance for the Dickinson ambulance -- we finally have the personnel and structure to where we are able to extend our service into the community,” he said.

Generally, the ambulance is already at the scene.

“We provide first responder medical care -- if we get there first, and it doesn’t happen often, we provide a level of care that our people are trained to do until the ambulance people get there,” he said. “We assist them in any way we can, which frees up the police department to answer other calls. It was a natural next step of progression of service. It’s brand new.”

The City Fire Department has a mutual aid agreement with the Dickinson Rural  Fire Department.

“We’re two separate entities -- they carry more water than we do, but we carry more hose than they do,” he said.

Sivak’s career has also been a progression -- from 1978 to 1982, Sivak was a volunteer. He was hired in 1982 as a fire inspector. He came up through the ranks and was appointed chief of the department in March of 2006.

“In our structure today, my role is incident commander if the incident is large enough,” he said. “Otherwise, with our volunteer and full time people, I just observe and listen. I don’t need to take over.”

Changes

The department has changed more in the last five years than in the previous 30 years. The fire department had four full time people and approximately 35 volunteers in 2008. Today, it has 16 full time positions and approximately 35 volunteers, he said.

“We have three shifts of full time firefighters working 24-hour shifts,” he said. “Our 2008 budget was $371,000; today our budget is $1.5 million -- almost four times greater.”

The department’s goal is to reach a fire scene is six minutes or less, depending on snowdrifts or the traffic. It’s a benchmark set by the National Fire Protection Association.

“A pumper truck shouldn't have to travel more than 1½ miles to get where it's going. When the new hospital was built, it was beyond the 1½ mile travel distance from the downtown fire hall. We knew we needed a second fire hall.”

He was referencing the new City of Dickinson Public Safety Center on State Avenue that is shared with the Dickinson Police Department. The center won the bronze award in the “shared facilities design” category of the Firehouse magazine’s 2016 National Station Design program.

“The central station (downtown) is still an operating station, but is transitioning to more of a substation role --  people still sleep down there,” he said.

He is currently bidding to purchase a  new pumper, which will replace two units that are older than 30 years.

“Every time I think I can breathe, something comes on the table -- we joke that we’ll never get caught up -- it’s just what’s next,” he said.

Career fire

It would take time to count the number of fires that Sivak has responded to, but one stands out -- the fire at the historic Dickinson Elks Building on Oct. 15, 2007.

“Every firefighter has what they call a career fire -- a once-in-a-lifetime fire,” he said. “It was a major building fire that took the combined efforts of two departments to control…. It was  2 in the morning when we realized we were going to save the building. We still had to do the investigation and put out the hot spots… I  was the overall incident commander at that time.”

“On the natural disaster side, we had a tornado in 2009 that we would call a career defining moment. I was on administrative role at the emergency operations center … we had gas leaks, but no active fires that night. If I never seen another tornado the rest of my life, I’m OK.”

Throughout his career, Sivak always focused on classes that could advance his career.

“Although I attended Dickinson State, I never completed a degree, but I knew some day education would play into whether I advanced or not,” he said.

He took courses in emergency management, strategy, human resources -- enough countable credit hours to help him secure the job as fire chief.

“Most firefighters today come with advanced degrees in fire science or administration -- primarily through correspondence courses… versus the hard road I chose,” he said.

As Sivak considers retirement down the road, he said, “I’ve done this for so long, sometimes I wonder how to be anybody else -- but I’m working on that. I like to hunt, and haven't gone fishing in ages -- maybe I’ll try that again. My wife, Pamela and I also  like to travel.”

They have four children living from border to border in North Dakota -- Holly O’Brien, Heather Jandt, Annie Larsen and Daniel Sivak. Plus they have six grandchildren.

“Part of my bucket list is not to miss a single grandchild’s function,” he said.

As a supervisor

Deb Barros, who is assistant chief/support services officer,  has known Sivak since she started working at the Dickinson Fire Department in October of 1985, having transitioned  from the Police Department.

She described Sivak as goal-oriented, a leader who does his homework before making an administrative decision or establishing a new policy. He’s considered a mentor by the other firefighters.

“As incident commander on the scene, he can make split second decisions for the safety of his staff and the people he’s trying to help,” she said. “That comes with all of his life and fire experiences.”

Firefighters’ families

In concluding his conversation, Sivak gave a shout out to the spouses and families of firefighters.

“The families become part of the department. Because of the nature of this type of service, and the time it takes, you can’t successfully do that without support. My wife deserves combat pay for putting up with me,” he said.

Many of the spouses -- both male and female -- are members of the firefighters auxiliary. The auxiliary recently sponsored a breakfast to generate funds for its charity work -- be it serving lunch for the firefighters at a fire, or handing out food, blankets or vouchers to families affected by a fire.

The fire department keeps a list of applicants as firefighters.

“We need 50 people (full and part time) on the roster at any give time,” he said.

He remembers when most of the volunteers worked downtown, and literally could run to the fire hall. Today, many of those same volunteers work in the oil patch outside of town.

“During the height of the boom  when we had so many calls, one employee called me and said he supports the fire department, but seriously, how many times a day did he let his guy go?”

Through time and changes in Dickinson, the number of full time firefighters has increased, but the volunteers have remained static.

“If we dip below 30, we get nervous,” he said.

And just as the city has grown, the fire department has responded to the needs.

“The volunteers will comprise a very important part of the department for many, many years to come. It’s a model that still works,” he said.

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