The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

November 24, 2013

Fire service is a tradition in Conneaut-area family

CONNEAUT — For decades, fire bells and sirens have been a daily occurrence for members of an extended, Conneaut-area family.

In 1930, Oscar Dixon joined Conneaut’s volunteer fire department. Eighteen years later, son George joined the ranks. In subsequent years, George’s boys — George Jr., and David — also logged time in the department. Today, George’s grandson, Tony Bernato, is a full-time firefighter at Conneaut’s Station 1, while Tony’s younger brother Mike works in a utility capacity at the firehouse.

Want more? Tony’s dad, Frank, was a firefighter in Ashtabula Township.

Dixon, 83, marvels as the lineage. “I never thought I would see my grandson in the fire service,” he said.

Dixon became a volunteer firefighter in 1948, and eventually enjoyed a long career as a full-timer at Station 1 (and the former Fire Station 2) before stepping down due to injury in 1990. Such work was taken for granted in the “old days,” he said.

“We needed a fire service,” Dixon said. “All my cousins and uncles (served). We just wanted to help someone.”

Conneaut Fire Chief Steve Lee said there are other families with similar backgrounds in the region.

“For a lot of them it’s a family tradition,” he said. “It’s a great thing.”

The business has evolved tremendously since Dixon rolled up to his first fire. Equipment and technology today are light-years ahead of the gear Dixon wore at the start, he said. No fire-resistant clothing or breathing apparatus back then, Dixon said.

“We had rubber raincoats and a metal helmet,” he said. “We also had just a couple of old Army gas masks.”

To fight fumes and smoke, Dixon would stuff a moistened handkerchief in his mouth.

Strategy is also different, Dixon said.

“In the early days, the way to fight a fire was to drown it,” he said. “Now you attack from within to save property.”

The dynamics of firefighting has changed, due in part to new materials that are more flammable or combustible, Bernato said.

“Things today burn faster and hotter, like plastics,” Bernato said. “You have a shorter time to do the job.”

Dixon said he is glad he stepped away when he did. So many of the calls Station 1 crews answer today are medical based — which was not Dixon’s strong suit, he quickly admits. Bernato agreed much of the station’s work today involves the ambulance.

“It’s almost all (emergency medical service),” he said. “About 80 percent (of the calls).”

Dixon is a regular visitor to Station 1. Do the young firefighters ever seek advice?

“I tell them stories from the old days, and hope they pick up something worthwhile from that,” Dixon said.

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