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December 21, 2009

My Turn: Fire chief was never 'off duty'

This week's "My turn" column is by Maggie Barnes, wife of retiring Oneonta Fire Chief Robert Barnes.

In the entranceway of our home hangs a sign. "Normal Around Here Is Just A Setting On The Dryer."

It is a sentiment that could be expressed in the house of any emergency responder. My husband, Robert Barnes, has been the chief of the Oneonta Fire Department and the city's emergency manager for the entire course of our 15-year marriage.

As he prepares to retire on Christmas Day, please allow me this opportunity to share with you some observations from my privileged front-row seat.

Bobby, as he is known to much of our corner of the world, never planned to go into emergency services. But, as if encoded into his DNA, he found himself drawn to public service. Bobby would go on to take his dad's place as county fire coordinator. He became a state fire instructor. Nineteen years ago, he joined OFD.

Life at our house was a lot of things, but never boring. There were many times when he would leave for an incident and it would be anywhere from two hours to two days before he would be home again.

I remember the Dark Horse blaze on Leap Day and watching him work the fire ground in his ice-encrusted turnout coat. I remember his grief at the loss of two small children in a fire on Grand Street. I remember him wading into the Susquehanna to stop a man from taking his own life, holding him out of the water until help arrived.

I remember the tornadoes and how one threatened a huge soccer game at Hartwick College. Bobby coordinated the evacuation of 3,000 people and not one person got hit by so much as a drop of rain.

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