Family members and fellow firefighters remember the life of Winter Park EMS Capt. A.J. Isaacs, who died unexpectedly Jan. 30.
Whenever the weight felt like it was too much to carry, you would find him there. In the cluttered confines of his workshop set up in his garage, Winter Park EMS Capt. A.J. Isaacs found solace in the sawdust. He crafted, shaped, smithed and carved for hours. The lathe, the forge and workbench were welcome distractions.
It was his quiet place after seeing how fragile life was day after day on the job as a first responder, and Isaacs knew idle hands made the devil’s work — it was best to keep the mind busy by working on a new project.
“I could tell when he came home from shift if he had a rough night or he was up all night or if he had a call that was really difficult for him to process,” Heather, A.J.’s wife, said. “I would tell him to come out into the workshop, because that’s where he’d be able to process things in his mind as he’s doing things with his hands. It ended up to where he just created beautiful things with it.”
The Isaacs home has traces of A.J.’s creativity at every turn, from decorative wall art to vases.
Today, the pieces of woodwork serve a far greater purpose than decoration — they’re precious memories of the man who crafted them.
A.J. — a husband, a father of five, a Winter Park first responder for more than 25 years and a gifted craftsman — died unexpectedly in his sleep Jan. 30. He was 47.
Since that day, the Winter Park Fire-Rescue Department has wrapped its arms around the Isaacs family and continues to reflect on the memory of a man who left an impression on so many others.
A.J. joined the Winter Park Fire-Rescue Department in 1993 as a firefighter, later getting promoted to engineer then fire lieutenant and then finally EMS captain.
He also led the group that watched over the MARC-5 unit — a mobile area radio cache system for Central Florida maintained and operated by Winter Park first responders. Last year, A.J. and three other team members traveled to the Panhandle with the radio system for a 10-day deployment to rescue and aid those affected by Hurricane Michael. The team provided 911 and radio traffic for the entire area, supporting the rest of Florida Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 4 and anyone else who needed it.
But above all his work as a first responder, A.J. was a family man first, Heather said.
“He was incredible — he never took overtime while we were together, because he knew it was important for the two of us to have this incredible foundation to support his career and support my career and to raise the five children as a blended family,” Heather said. “He frequently told his guys and his gals to turn down overtime. I had one of the guys come up to me, and he said, ‘Every time I turned down overtime, I’d send A.J. a picture of me and my kids and say, “Thank you, man.”’ I know that he would want nothing more to be his legacy than to make sure the guys and gals take care of themselves and their families at home.”
Heather said she and A.J. were fiercely in love, and that she was always with him wherever he went. She let him know that in many ways — one of which was the inscription written in Sharpie inside his helmet.
“With all my love I send you off,” it reads. “Please be safe and know forever you’re my amazing man.”
LOOKING AFTER OUR OWN
Winter Park Fire Chief Dan Hagedorn said he always will remember A.J. as a progressive thinker. In a profession in which the unexpected occurs often, A.J. always tried to think of a better way to do things, Hagedorn said.
“His creativity was off the charts all the time,” he said. “In addition to being a woodworker, he’d do different things different ways mechanically speaking. It’s easy to get entrenched in the way you’ve done things for so long. A career can go by doing it the same way. … It takes a creative person and a forward thinker to question what we’ve done or the existing procedure.”
A.J. ultimately used his knack for creative thinking to make patients and responders safer in the back of ambulances. He was instrumental in the custom designs of rescue vehicles for the department — a standard that has since spread across the nation.
In nearly all circumstances, a medic providing aid in the back of a vehicle was unrestrained. A.J. reasoned the rescuers should wear a harness and have their devices and supplies within reach.
“(It was) even to the point where we angled the walls that, if we did get a side impact, our head would not hit a 90-degree wall,” Hagedorn said of the modifications. “It’s easier to bounce off a wall at an angle versus going right into one. A lot of forward thinking there. … On many occasions, our rescues were on display at trade shows, the biggest trade shows in really the country. Our rescues were there and people wanted to know everything about them. We sent A.J. to those trade shows to speak on behalf of his design, so it was a pretty monumental thing.”
Heather said A.J. was passionate about his support of legislation that would offer firefighters further protections with health care.
“It’s critical,” Heather said. “They dedicate their whole lives and their bodies and their minds to serving other people, and the day they retire, it’s just supposed to be over — your time has been served even though they may have gotten cancer that doesn’t show up for years, and it may not be covered because of current legislation.
“He wanted to do anything and everything he could to make sure that the people that worked in the fire service had the best ability to care for themselves and care for their families,” she said.
A LEGACY OF LOVE
Heather’s attention now focuses on paying tribute to her late husband. She hopes to start a support group for firefighter spouses within Central Florida. There’s also a sketchbook full of invention ideas that A.J. kept over the years with the hope of someday pursuing patents.
Heather said she hopes to see some of those projects through.
She also intends to donate the tools in A.J.’s workshop to the Audubon Park Covenant Church so it can start a maker space for the community to use and take classes on how to make repairs.
Those worn tools will be put to good use once more.
“When all this happened … I’ve already talked to the pastor — I thought that the best way to honor him and this neighborhood and this community is to donate his tools and his workshop over there to create that maker space in his honor,” Heather said. “(The conversation) started before anything happened to him. It was important to him.”
A glimpse around the Isaacs household reveals a striking truth: not one of those projects A.J. fashioned in his workshop was for himself. A vase for his wife carved on a lathe. Ornate wooden biggie banks for his children that resembled P.O. Boxes. An urn holding his father’s ashes built from a Harley-Davidson motorcycle cylinder. A cutting board for a neighbor. Even an updated display of the retired firefighter badges hangs today at the Winter Park public safety building thanks to A.J.’s handiwork.
The heart of a selfless servant showed not only through A.J.’s work as a firefighter, EMS captain and MARC-5 unit operator far from home but also in every last aspect of his life.
“He was a servant,” Heather said. “He was a public servant and he had a servant’s heart — whether he was a father, a husband, a son-in-law. He was always about serving other people.”