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Lansing State Journal

'I took care of my people:' Lansing firefighter Mike Tobin calls it a career

By Ken Palmer, Lansing State Journal,


LANSING — Mike Tobin experienced the good and the bad during his 35 years in emergency services, handling everything from fatal car crashes, industrial accidents and fire deaths to delivering babies, working presidential security details and getting a great view at big sports events as an assigned first responder.

But in the end, it all comes down to the people, the relationships forged over years on the front lines, said Tobin, who retired earlier this month after 25 years with the Lansing Fire Department, the last five as an assistant chief.

"It's a bittersweet day," Tobin said on his last day with LFD. "I'm happy to be able to spend more time with the family, but I'm definitely going to miss the people here."

Tobin, 53, worked his way up the ranks after joining the Lansing department as a firefighter/paramedic in 1998, becoming the Lansing Metro Hazmat Team leader and the city's emergency management coordinator.

After being named assistant chief in 2018, he was a stabilizing force during a period of rapid turnover at the top of the department, serving as interim chief three times between 2019 and 2022. He was a finalist for the permanent chief position that eventually went to current Chief Brian Sturdivant.

"He left an indelible mark on our department, especially from the point of continuity and consistency during several leadership transitions," Sturdivant said of Tobin. "(His departure) leaves a void in our organization that's going to be tough to fill, but he also left a road map we can follow to a certain extent to make sure we are progressive and productive."

Sturdivant described Tobin as "an all-around great guy" who is "driven by his principles, and he reflected that in the organization."

Tobin oversaw the operations side of the department. LFD has a second assistant chief in charge of administration, and it's taking steps to cover its bases until it can fill Tobin's position, Sturdivant said.

It's been quite a ride for Tobin, who began his career in his hometown of Rochester, New York, before moving to Minnesota, then to the Ann Arbor area. He lost his first wife, a flight nurse, in a 1994 helicopter crash. He's also lost firefighter friends to cancer, which presents the most dangerous threat to firefighter health and safety, according to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.

"On the good side of this, I've delivered 12 babies at last count," he said. "Of the ones I've been able to follow, all are doing well. And I've made some tremendous friends."

Emergency services work takes a psychological and physical toll on the people who do it, and they have to learn to manage the stress, he said. Fortunately, there are now more and better resources to help first-responders deal with those issues, he said.

"When I started, it was, 'Suck it up and deal with it,'" he said.

Tobin said his biggest source of strength has been his wife, Julie, and their three children, who are now in their 20s.

"They understand the struggles I have at times," he said. "They have been amazing. They've been my final support."

Tobin won't have any trouble keeping busy. He officiates youth football games and has long moonlighted in emergency response training and planning for the auto industry. He'll likely devote more hours to that pursuit.

"My wife retired just over a year ago," he said. "She's allowing me to work a little bit, but not all the time."

One source of satisfaction: In his last opportunity to review LFD's roster, he realized he knew all 164 of the people on it.

"I knew my people, and I took care of my people," he said. "When you get to the chief level in fire departments, that's your No. 1 job. The biggest thing I'm responsible for is my people. I need to take sure they are safe and they are taken care of."

There have been major advancements in the emergency services field during his career, particularly in technology and protective equipment, Tobin said. The biggest challenge now is finding job candidates, he said.

"We are not getting the people we once did," he said. "We are facing vacancies in Lansing. We can't get enough applications to fill those jobs. That's a problem nationwide."

Contact Ken Palmer Follow him on Twitter @KBPalm_lsj

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