Cape Coral firefighter takes final shift of 37-year career
Michael Camelo has seen a lot of change in his 36 years with the Cape Coral Fire Department.
On Wednesday, Camelo came to work for his 24-hour shift for the last time, ending a career that began when he was a teenager in a town that was nothing like it is now.
His shift concluded early Thursday morning with a trip home in a fire truck, the same type he drove for the department for 10 years early in his career.
Camelo has worked longer than any firefighter in the city’s history, and with many of them retiring after 25 years, his tenure is likely to stand for a long time.
The reason Camelo stayed for much longer is a simple one.
“I love this job. At 19 years old, this job basically saved my life,” Camelo said. The element I hung out with was a bad element, and I came in at the department on Chester Street looking to be a firefighter.”
Camelo started as a volunteer in 1976 and, after a big fire at a fiberglass pool company in the industrial park, was asked by the fire chief to come on as a career firefighter, for a hefty $9,500 per year.
When Camelo started there were seven firefighters per shift and 21 in the whole department, at two stations, some of whom were volunteers, though they were being phased out after the city was incorporated, he said.
“To see it grow from two stations to 10 is phenomenal. The populated areas back then were still south of Veterans with some in the north, but we still had to respond,” Camelo said.
From there, it was up the ranks. From firefighter, he became an engineer in 1982, driving the LaFrance trucks to the scene, before becoming a lieutenant in 1992.
In 2004, then-fire chief Bill Van Helden started the special-ops team, which specialized in trench rescue, confined spaces and structural collapses, among other things.
“It’s a thankless job, but the great thing is, you’re helping people out in their hour of need,” Camelo said. “It’s not about the pay or the time off or the allure of being a hero, it’s about helping people.”
For Camelo, it was payoff in gratitude for what the city gave him.
“I felt like I owed the city for the opportunity they gave me to work for this department and saved my life,” Camelo said.
After he finished his shift, he was brought home in a LaFrance truck, the same one he drove in the ’80s as an engineer.
Camelo will remain associated with the department as an instructor at the Fort Myers Fire Academy, and is looking forward to doing another 10 years there teaching recruits.
Many of today’s firefighters learned a lot from Camelo, some of them gaining ranks higher than his own. Ken Ossowicz, battalion chief with 24 years on the force, said Camelo was a mentor.
“He was one of my supervisors when I started out. His passion for the job is something you don’t see every day,” Ossowicz said. “He remains up to date on all the techniques and he comes to work and brings his best.”
“He was one of the officers who helped develop me and I take a lot of the lessons he taught me to this point,” Battalion Chief Ryan Lamb said. “I went through some tough times and he was able to mentor me and get me through them.”
Camelo said he will miss the camaraderie with the guys and that he hopes he will be remembered by them.
“I’m going to miss the guys. My biggest worry is that I will be forgotten,” Camelo said. “My only regret is that I wish I was 19 again so I could do this another 36 years.”