CCFD ‘lifers’ ready to retire after 30 years of service
In their profession, you never know what awaits on any given day.
After putting the safety of their community first for more than three decades, a group of Cape Coral Fire Department lifers are hanging up their boots to enjoy paradise after their heroic public service.
The group includes firefighter Anthony Menna, Deputy Chief Robert Topoleski, Battalion Chief Todd Rigoni, Battalion Chief Ken Ossowicz and Lt. John Lewandowski.
“It’s been a long time coming. I’m ready,” Ossowicz said of his retirement. “Thirty years is a long time to do anything, especially this. It takes it’s toll after awhile.”
Ossowicz is looking forward to spending more time and traveling with his family, that includes two older children and his wife, Stacey.
A Staten Island native, Ossowicz moved to Cape Coral with his family when he was just 10 years old.
As a young adult, he attended what was then Edison Community College, studying general education, thinking, maybe, of a career as a teacher.
While in college, he knew a friend in the fire service, which intrigued Ossowicz.
At the time, CCFD had a volunteer arm, which he decided to become a part of as a freshman in college. A few guys got together once a week, learning basic things about the department.
With his first child on the way, Ossowicz knew he had to find a steady job to support his family.
Ossowicz thought a career in firefighting sounded promising.
“My friend gave me the information and I started going to the volunteer meetings – that was it, I was hooked,” Ossowicz said. “I saw what these guys did. I saw them go out on calls and I said, ‘Man, this is really interesting.'”
The fact that each day brought a new challenge or task, never the same thing over and over again, really appealed to Ossowicz, along with his admission for being somewhat of an adrenaline seeker.
“You’re never doing the same thing twice, every day is different. You never know what’s coming over the radio next. You always have to be prepared,” he said.
“It just kind of spoke to me. I thought, ‘I think this is going to be for me.'”
Ossowicz attended the Fort Myers Fire Academy and graduated in ’89. He received his EMT certification at Edison, a requirement to become a firefighter, and threw his hat in the ring.
CCFD was the only place he applied. Usually prospective firefighters put in their applications to various departments and units in their area — not Ossowicz.
“This is what it was for me; either here or nowhere,” he said.
He tested with 300 other applicants and made the cut. He was one of 17 hired in his group. There were just four existing stations in the Cape at the time.
As a rookie in 1990, he spent time bouncing around all of the stations, learning the city and the individuality of each firehouse.
Ossowicz figured out early on he really enjoyed the paramedic side of the job and wanted to take his skills a step beyond being an EMT. He took part in a yearlong program on his own dime and time, and became one of just three certified paramedics in the department at the time.
Now, CCFD has a program where they send firefighters to paramedic school regularly.
Medical response is a huge part of being a firefighter, not just responding to a blaze, Ossowicz said.
“Probably 80 percent of what we do is medical calls,” he said. “We are firefighters, and that’s what we’re trained to do, but nationwide, fires are not the great majority of what fire departments do anymore. We’re all cross-trained in medicine, and that has become a larger and larger part of what we do. Anything you can think to dial 9-1-1 for, we respond to. Those skills came in handy from day one.”
Ossowicz stayed a “firefighter” for nine years before being promoted to engineer in 1999.
“It was a great learning experience, just another facet of the firefighting world I opened myself up to and needed to learn,” he said. “In the later stages of being an engineer, you then look toward being a leader.”
Ossowicz was promoted to lieutenant in 2005 and spent seven years in the position, one that requires leading a station.
“You are responsible for all things that happen in the firehouse,” Ossowicz said. “That was really my first big step into leadership within an organization like this.”
He drew from his years in the department, taking bits and pieces from leaders before him and created his own leadership style, something he said did not come easy and developed over time.
Most of his time as a lieutenant was spent at Station 4 and Station 6, where Ossowicz built bonds and molded the future of the fire department, one that was, and still is, relatively young in a city only 50 years old.
“You really get to have an influence over how the next generation is coming in and what they learn,” he said. “You have to decide how you want the next generation to look and that’s how you train them. You want them to be better than you when you came in. If you can pass on that valuable information and make sure that this department is a better place when you leave it than it was when you started, then you’ve accomplished your goal.”
Ossowicz then took the leap from lieutenant to battalion chief in 2012, a position he finds himself in until he retirement day next week.
The battalion chief role is more of an incident commander, not going into the fire, or any fire, but stationed outside of the structure calling the shots, directing all of the apparatus and people on-scene.
“You’re like the conductor,” Ossowicz said.
He admitted when he applied for the position he wasn’t quite ready to “hang up his boots” but felt he had something to offer at that level and gave it a shot.
He took the test and before long, was promoted.
“I decided to embrace the role and took it seriously,” Ossowicz said.
He is one of six battalion chiefs in the department and, during his shift, is responsible for the entire south section of the city. There is another battalion chief on his shift who is responsible for the entire north section, or “battalion” of the city.
The department runs on three, 24-hour shift cycles, labeled A, B and C.
Across his three decades of service at nearly every level of the department, Ossowicz will take away a fulfilling career, a lasting mark on the Cape Coral Fire Department and lifelong friends.
“Friends” doesn’t seem to be an adequate enough description for the bonds made by individuals who walk together towards the face of danger and come out the other side.
“Friendships made under stressful conditions tend to last a long time,” Ossowicz said. “A lot of us, especially those who have been here for a long time, have been through a lot together; multiple major weather events, lots of dangerous situations, and when you go through those things together, it does build a bond. This becomes your family. We look forward to seeing each other every third day, but of course, when that shift is over, we look forward to getting home safely and seeing our families again.”
From a young man unsure of his path to a decorated first responder with a lifetime worth of service to his community, Ossowicz feels like a lucky man to have been able to work alongside his comrades and to protect the city he loves.
“Just to have had the experiences that I’ve had – not everyone gets the opportunity to get to serve their community the way they have, and I feel lucky to be able to do that.”
Leaving the department evokes mixed emotions.
“It’s bittersweet,” Ossowicz said. “It really is. I’m going to certainly miss these guys and girls I work with every third day. There’s something about the camaraderie here in the fire service — it’s hard to find it anywhere else. It’s special.”
He’s also thankful to be able to walk away from a dangerous profession in an area of the country that deals with natural disasters on a yearly basis.
“I’ve had my share on injuries, but I’m all in one piece, Ossowicz said. “There are firefighters that lose their lives every day on the job.”
Ossowicz has shared many great memories alongside those who are also calling it a career with CCFD.
Deputy Chief Topoleski was a part of that group of 17 hired in ’90 with Ossowicz, who has nothing but respect for the No. 2 in command of the station.
“I’m proud to know him and he’s just an excellent man overall,” Ossowicz said.
Menna, who spent his whole career as a firefighter, went through volunteer programs with Ossowicz.
“The fact that he spent his whole career as a firefighter is quite noble in my opinion,” Ossowicz said. “He’s just a great guy.”
Lt. Lewandowski happened to be in that group of 17 with Ossowicz and Topoleski as well.
“We came up together. We all came through the ringer together in the early days,” Ossowicz said.
Rigoni, unfortunately, suffered a recent stroke, but Ossowicz said his family is reporting he is making positive progress ever day.
All of these retirees have served 30-plus years with CCFD and have made a lasting mark on the department for years to come.
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