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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.

What the people of Oneonta rarely got to see was the Bobby who was "on duty" at all times. Not only here, where it would have been expected for him to aid a fellow parishioner in church or stop at a traffic accident to make sure everyone is OK.

But on every vacation, every weekend away, every person within his sight was part of his moral obligation as an emergency responder.

There are dozens of examples through the years "¦ the fishhook in the little boy's ear on the Florida pier, the car fire on the thruway that he put out (much to the amazement of the state trooper), the elderly woman on the tour in Gettysburg having chest pains. (To disguise the fact he was taking her pulse, he told her he just wanted to hold her hand.)

I can't count the times we have turned around "just to make sure" that the fallen ladder or the open car door or odd glow in a house wasn't a sign of trouble for a complete stranger.

A friend of ours who works in advertising once said, "If you called Central Casting and said Send me a fire chief,' they would send you Bob Barnes." He is that classic American hero.

On behalf of Eric, Angela and David Barnes, we were proud to share him with you for all these years. I have no illusions that he will stop going out of his way to assist people, known and unknown, who are in distress.

Quite the contrary, this retirement means Bobby can move on to new and expanded ways to use his talents to benefit more of our region and state. But 36 years is a long time to wake every morning with the safety of the entire community on your shoulders.

I love you, Bobby. And chief or not, you will always be my hero.

To write for "My turn," contact Daily Star Publisher Tanya Shalor at or 432-1000, ext. 214.