In 1959, firefighters in Orange County rode to fires in an open cab truck, with as many as 11 men clinging to the vehicle as it slalomed through the streets, racing to the rescue.
The ’32 Ford truck had a mechanical brake; so slowing down wasn’t much of an option once they got going.
As a young man that year, Walter Howell and a friend watched as the local fire crew raced off and thought being a firefighter would be a grand adventure. The pair promptly went to the station, asking to volunteer. He would not have guessed then, but it would be the beginning of a family legacy.
“In those days, all you had to do was show up, learn how to handle the hose and you were in,” Howell said.
Now 81, Howell is Orange County’s oldest firefighter and the oldest person working for the county. No longer in a combat role, Howell continues to serve as a volunteer, recruiting the county’s next generation of reserve firefighters.
If anyone knows about what that role entails, it’s Howell. He wrote the first training program for fire rescue volunteers in the county, and retired from the department with officer status only to return as a volunteer, unable to stay away for long.
Stitched in bright gold thread, the long row of stripes on Howell’s dress uniform sleeve stand out boldly, each representing four years of service.
“The joke is that I’m going to have to start on the next sleeve soon,” Howell said.
During his long career, Howell took officer’s training, obtained his fire inspector license and has been responsible for recruiting hundreds of young firefighters to the ranks.
While he was serving the county, Howell was a family man and the service manager of a local lawn mower shop. In those early days in Orlando, firefighting was a volunteer-only profession. A day job was a necessity.
Growing up, Michael Howell, Walter’s son, watched his dad go off to fight fires and looked up to the crews his dad worked with, often begging his mom for the chance to go and hang out with the guys at the station.
He joined the firefighter explorer program while in high school and the reserves at the earliest opportunity, right after his 18th birthday.
It was only a matter of time before he followed his father’s footsteps, keeping Orange County safe.
Michael retired last year after almost 40 years with the county, with the rank of battalion chief, but he still remembers his first day as a firefighter: April 12, 1976.
“It didn’t matter that my dad was a firefighter, I was still the new guy, the rookie, with a lot to learn,” Michael said.
“My chief made sure I knew every tool on the trucks, not only their location, but how there were used,” he said. “There would be quizzes, just to make sure we knew it all.”
Years later, as Michael’s son Matthew Howell was preparing for his own career in firefighting, Michael would share this tip, encouraging him to spend every spare moment memorizing the truck contents.
It’s not an easy task, considering the average rig contains over 250 tools.
When a new firefighter graduates, it is tradition that a family member has the honor of pinning on that first badge. When Matthew was pinned, it was an historic moment for the family and the county.
That day the Howells became the first third-generation firefighting family in the county.
“It was the best day of my life,” Matthew said. “To have my dad and granddad on stage with me was incredible. It felt like they were welcoming me to the family [tradition] and the firefighting family all at once.”
Looking back on the day, with a glisten of tears in his eyes, Walter says simply that the day was “awesome, so proud of him.”
“My own father passed when he was only 47, he never got to see my kids grow up, let alone all that has been accomplished,” Walter said, clearly emotional at the realization.
“Knowing I was about to retire, it was a tremendous honor to have him carry the torch,” said Matthew’s dad, Michael.
Matthew has only been on the job for six months, but already he feels at home.
“I love every day, every second of it. Except being away from my wife, that’s still difficult,” said the newly wed.
Like his father and grandfather before him, nothing is handed to Matthew; he has to work hard each day to earn the respect of his crewmates. But with the support of his unique family history, he’s well on his way.
“It certainly helps to be able to draw on their expertise, knowledge,” Matthew said.
“I know that after a rough day, I can call them up and debrief, learning from each case by going over the details and getting their advice,” he said.
“I hear everyday that I have big shoes to fill, with such a legacy, but I feel confident that I’m up to it.”