Meet Your Detroit Firefighters
Sgt. Jeff Urbas
After working 25 years as a Detroit Firefighter, Jeff Urbas can say without hesitation, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” For a quarter of a century, he’s been serving his hometown as a Detroit Firefighter. “It’s somehow, in some way, a calling. You don’t know it until you’re deep into it and then you look back and it went so fast,” he explained.
Joining the department was an easy decision for Urbas. Everyone in his neighborhood on the East Side worked for the city so the Fire Department was a natural fit. He started after he finished school and has never looked back. Along the way he’s learned how to keep things clean and organized and even how to cook. But the life lessons go far beyond that. “I’ve learned I like helping people. No matter what they need. I’ve always kind of had that sense when someone needs help and I don’t mind doing it whether I’m on duty or off duty.”
He’s lived out that commitment to helping others. Saving many lives in his 25 years with DFD. One fire in particular still stands out in his mind today. “I had about four years on the job. We did a search in an occupied house and I found somebody upstairs. It’s a strange feeling to be in the dark, feeling around and you actually feel that body. You almost have to do that double take like, ‘Is this a body? Is this a couch? Is this a stuffed animal?’ And to actually feel that body, knowing that they need help, they’re unconscious. That one stands out.”
Although moments like that are sobering, the job has been filled with joy too. Sgt. Urbas is lucky enough to serve alongside his two brothers, Brian and Mike, who work with Ladder 23. He’s also been a member of the DFD Clown Team for 20 years. He’s been there for people on their worst days and made them smile on other days. Now, he can smile about the direction the Fire Department is going. “The change is constant. I believe we’re turning the corner. Commissioner Jones has done wonders in the short time he’s been here,” Sgt. Urbas said.
With 25 years of service, Sgt. Jeff Urbas is still going strong. The call to serve and the brotherhood keep him passionate about his profession. “There is nothing better than the family we have; the comradery we have, especially in Detroit.”
Firefighters Charles and Demario Burton
Brothers Charles and Demario Burton are relatively new firefighters, both joining the Detroit Fire Department in 2014. However, Charles was first exposed to the career many years earlier. “My first job was as a Junior Cadet when I was 14 but I had no idea that I would become a firefighter later down the line,” he explained. The experience clearly had an impact because both brothers joined the department and they haven’t looked back since.
They like that the job is active and that they get to interact with kids in the same community where they grew up. “Seeing that so many kids look up to you and that you’re such a positive role model. Then you go back to your own community and you have an impact on your own community,” Demario said. Charles added, “My firehouse is probably three blocks from my house, the house that I grew up in, so a lot of times when we are doing community outreach stuff, I’ll run into people that I know.”
Although these two are brothers, they consider DFD a family, also referring to fellow firefighters as “brothers.” “We both went to college, neither one of us pledged a fraternity but this is the best fraternity in the world,” Charles explained. That bond goes deep, especially when they are depending on each other for safety. “It feels good to walk into something that you could possibly lose your life in and be able to count on the person next to you and know that you really have nothing to worry about because everybody else has got your back,” Demario said.
Detroit firefighters respond to fires and medical runs. The Burton brothers have learned a lot as a result of both experiences. “It makes you realize how precious life is,” Demario said. Charles talked about the medical calls and the joy and pride they take in knowing that someone they helped, survived. Demario was able to help save someone on Christmas Day, an experience that stands out in his mind. “To be able to save someone’s family member on Christmas Day, it shows how important you can be to your community.”
They love the job but take the commitment serious. “It’s definitely not easy. It’s something to take really serious. You can’t play because at the end of the day, you could have someone’s life in your hands,” Demario said. Although it isn’t always easy, both brothers say they are committed for life, joking that they have a long way to go to get to the 60-year old retirement mark. But they don’t seem to mind because they are doing a job that they love. “For me, it’s the next best thing to making it into the NFL,” Charles said. Can’t get a better endorsement than that!
Fire Engine Operator Ron Jones
Fire Engine Operator (FEO) Ron Jones knew he wanted to be a firefighter from the time he was nine years old. He and his brother stopped in a Detroit firehouse when a kind firefighter made a big impact on the young boy. “He asked me if I wanted to get on the rig and when I got on it, that was it,” he explained. From that day on, his dream was to become a Detroit Firefighter.
After graduating from high school and finishing military service, he was hired by the Detroit Fire Department in 1992. When asked if the job lived up to his dream, he said “every day” without a moment of hesitation. “I love going to work every day,” he said proudly.
Firefighter Jones works as a Fire Engine Operator. “I operate the Fire Engine or the pumper. If we get to a fire, I’m the one that stretches to the hydrant, makes sure we have a good water supply and pressure as the firefighters make their attack,” he explained. He is also responsible for making sure the other three members on his Engine make it to and from every run safely.
In addition to the passion Fire Engine Operator Jones feels for his career, he also feels a strong connection to the community. “The firehouse that I’m stationed at, I live five blocks away from it. So not only am I just a resident of the City, I live where I work and I work where I live,” FEO Jones said. He loves serving the community where he lives but it can make responding to calls more challenging. “It’s not like going to a run and then going away. Once you get off, it’s still there. You remember these people because you know them.”
Fire Engine Operator Jones has never forgotten the firefighter who changed his life when he was just a young boy. He hopes he can make that same impact as a firefighter today. He is always looking for opportunities to reach out to children and remains committed to the job he loves. “When it’s done and over, I just want to make sure I’ve done my part,” he said.
Firefighter Zoser Ahmad
Firefighter Zoser Ahmad did not grow up wanting to be a firefighter but two years after completing the Junior Fire Cadet Program, the Detroit Fire Department reached back out to him. After that, the pieces just fell into place. “I’m glad that they did,” he said. “I’m 100% happy I’m on the Detroit Fire Department.” Now, after serving 15 years with the DFD, he can add, “As the years progressed, I’ve come to understand and realize what a great job this is.”
He spoke passionately about the pride that comes with helping people and the comradery within the firehouse, calling his co-workers his “brothers” and “best friends”. However, the joy of his job extends beyond these two aspects. He’s proud of his firehouse, Engine 55, and what it means to the community.
“We try to keep this place as open as possible, so long as the weather permits. All throughout the day we get everybody from the community in and out of this place,” he explained. The team at Engine 55 is happy to help with whatever they need; air in the bike tires, gas for a vehicle or a tour of the firehouse. “That piece definitely gives me pride, to be able to help the community out even in times when they’re not calling 911. It’s just the small things.” Another small thing which is big for Firefighter Ahmad is that they take pride in the upkeep of their firehouse. Firefighter Ahmad explained, “In my opinion, I want this firehouse to be like a pillar of the community.”
While citizens see firefighters in the community, Firefighter Ahmad said it’s hard for people to really understand what it’s like to fight a fire. “It’s very much a fight. I guess that’s where the firefighter part comes into play. It’s hard work. In the end you feel good about it. You feel like you conquered something each time,” he explained.
After 15 years on the job, he’s conquered countless fires but remains cautious and attentive on the scene. He understands the risks and has a healthy respect for the danger involved. But at the end of the day he loves fighting fires and is proud of the work he does with Detroit Fire. “We’ve been doing this for a long time. Detroit is pretty good at fighting fires. If we think we can get it, we can probably get it.”
Firefighter Martez Dixson
Firefighter Martez Dixson has only been on the job for three years. Despite his short tenure with DFD, he’s had a unique experience which influenced him as a person and a firefighter. “I’ve definitely learned life lessons, especially since my injury,” he explained.
In 2016, Firefighter Dixson was critically injured in a fire and spent three days in a coma. He became disoriented in a commercial fire after getting separated from his crew. He ran out of air trying to find his way out and inhaled thick black smoke which filled his lungs and left him unconscious. Thankfully, a lieutenant found him and carried him through a window to safety. He was taken to Detroit Receiving Hospital in critical condition. “I feel like that experience, I learned a lot from it. And then I saw how much the guys show so much love. There were guys I hadn’t even met in the department but there was so much love, advice and support,” he said. That support carried him through his recovery and made the decision to return to work an easy one. When asked why he didn’t quit, he responded without hesitation, “I love it so much, I’m back.”
He’s back on the job but says the experience changed him as a firefighter. “It kind of brought me down to life which the guys had been telling me, ‘You’ve got to slow down.’ But now I look at everything a little differently. When I got to a place, I’m observing everything. I’m more aware now,” he explained. He believes these changes made him a better firefighter and he’s already moving up the ranks. Firefighter Dixson was recently promoted to Firefighter Driver, meaning he is responsible for driving the squads and trucks and making sure everyone arrives safely to the scenes. Right now, he is focused on learning all about the rigs but his goal is to continue growing and advancing in his career.
Firefighter Dixson was in a bad car accident when he was young and some kind firefighters checked in on him at the hospital. Ever since that experience, he wanted to be a firefighter. Although it was a lifelong dream, he says it’s surpassed his expectations. “I never thought that it would be this good,” he said with a smile, adding that he doesn’t see himself doing anything else until he retires. “I want to retire with a nice story and a nice name for myself,” he explained.
Sergeant Rock Turnipseed
Firefighter Rock Turnipseed has a story to share and he’s using his personal experience as a platform in his new role with the Community Relations Division of the Detroit Fire Department. He was a firefighter for 11 years before being severely injured in a fire in 2003. In 2004, he retired as a result of the injury but never lost his passion for firefighting. Now, he’s back with DFD and he’s using his story to educate kids about the importance of fire safety and prevention.
Firefighter Turnipseed first joined the Detroit Fire Department in 1992 as a young boy just out of high school. “I never knew there was a job made for me until I came on the job,” Firefighter Turnipseed explained. He compared it to a good shoe, saying it just fit. “It was exciting. It was scary. It was rewarding. You go through the whole gamut of emotions throughout the day,” he said. He’s proud to be a firefighter and proud to protect his hometown of Detroit.
From 1992 until 2003, he worked with Engine 56 responding to fire calls and bonding with his brothers at the firehouse. Then on June 30, 2003, everything changed. Firefighter Turnipseed and his crew responded to a business which was fully engulfed in flames. The crew was preparing to enter the building when the roof collapsed, knocking out the front wall. The wall collapsed on Firefighter Turnipseed, crushing his foot and trapping him beneath a pile of cinder blocks. The damage was so severe that they could not save his foot. His foot was amputated on July 4, 2003, and he received a prosthetic after that. “It was devastating,” he said. He was just 31 years old and everything changed in an instant. “I was a young man doing what I loved and it was gone, just like that. I had no Plan B.”
Firefighter Turnipseed retired in 2004 and struggled adjusting to his new normal. “My wife and my children were the main reason I was able to cope,” he said multiple times. Thankfully, with the support of his family, he was able to move past the injury but he never lost his passion for firefighting and his urge to be a part of the Detroit Fire Department. In November 2016, he was given that chance. Commissioner Eric Jones hired Firefighter Turnipseed, now Sergeant Turnipseed, to serve with the Community Relations Division.
Sergeant Turnipseed talks to students, teachers and community members about the importance of fire safety. “I’m not shy about speaking about it. I’m not shy about showing it or talking about it. It’s just part of my story. My calling may be to help someone save their own life,” he explained. He tells the students that they are the most valuable product that the City has. “You are our future. Be our future. To be here for our future, you have to be fire safe,” he explains.
Although he still misses his days in the firehouse, he says his new role fits too. For him, it is personal and it is a calling. He is still keeping Detroit safe and impacting a whole new generation of young Detroiters.
Firefighter Casey Foren
Firefighter Casey Foren has been with the Detroit Fire Department for just over two years. Although that’s a relatively short amount of time, it’s long enough for her to know that she wants to be a firefighter for her entire career. “Absolutely,” she said with a smile. "I enjoy it and look forward to working. I wake up and I'm excited to go to get to the engine house."
Foren was introduced to the idea of firefighting from her brother who is also in the field. She said the more she heard about it, the more she thought it could be a good fit for her too. “I knew I wanted some type of discipline, something like a team. There isn't a lot you can get done on a fire scene without working together," she explained. She was drawn to the profession because it was active, upbeat and every day was something different. “I like not knowing what you’re going to get that day. You could cook, get detailed to another firehouse, and you never know what kind of runs you will get that day."
She wasn’t at all intimidated by the male dominated field and doesn’t see a difference between male and female firefighters. “People don't care if there is a girl or a guy getting the job done as long as it gets done properly. As for the guys, I think they treat me the same as any other firefighter. Being new on the job, I had to prove I was capable to do all the work. They expect me to do my part, like everyone else,” she explained when asked about the comradery in the firehouse. “It truly is like I have a bunch of big brothers. They have my back when I need it and I do the same for them.”
She hopes young girls and other women will not be afraid to try firefighting or whatever else they might be passionate about. “I hope that they would see that there is no job you can’t do. You just have to put your mind to it. You can’t let your gender decide what you want to do. If that’s what you want to do, then go do it,” she said and it seems the community agrees with her. “It's shocking to me how much encouragement and excitement some of the citizens will show when they see a female firefighter," she added.
For Firefighter Foren, gender isn’t an issue. What matters to her is that she does her job to the best of her ability for the community she serves. “I look at each scene as a challenge. We strive for the best outcome possible, whether it's a fire or a medical,” she said. “There's a gratifying feeling when everyone can go home safe and we did our best to make someone's worse day a little bit better.”