Brad Ballenger began his fire service career in 1987 as a barely paid reserve for the West Sacramento Fire Department and landed a roster spot on the El Dorado Hills Fire Department the following year.
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On a clear winter morning 24 years later he stood at attention and received his department’s highest honor, its “colors,” or flag, in a royal retirement sendoff on Monday, Nov. 26, which including a full color guard ceremony.
The outgoing division chief and fire marshal ends his fire service career the way it began. Ballenger will return as a volunteer, serving as a much-needed back-up chief.
An earlier chief, Bob Sima, hired the eager 26-year-old and promoted him to engineer in 1992, working under then-Capt. Dennis Planje at Station 84 on Francisco Drive. The Planje-Ballenger duo became a familiar sight on the north end of El Dorado Hills. They also became fast friends.
Sima retired the following year and left Larry Fry in charge. Chief Fry recalls Ballenger as a “hard-working honest young man when he came on,” a guy who “bettered himself and rose through the ranks,” never hesitating to accept greater responsibilities and becoming, in Fry’s words, “a model employee, the kind every chief wants more of.”
Fry called the team of Ballenger and Planje as “steady as a rock,” and “great with new employees.”
Planje said he enjoyed the quiet efficiency he and Ballenger developed. “We didn’t have to talk,” he explained. “We knew what needed to be done in most situations and just did it.”
The opening of Station 86 on Bass Lake Road in 2001 provided another promotion opportunity for the engineer, who became a captain.
Ballenger went on to serve five years as prevention captain, then promoted to battalion chief in 2007 and division chief, which also carries the fire marshal role, three years ago.
Ballenger wasn’t shy about voicing his opinion, “and he didn’t always agree with me,” said the strong-willed Fry, who knew that a good leader surrounds himself with independent thinkers. “Brad had input on a lot of important decisions.”
The shift battalion chief position was eliminated in the 2011 reorganization, placing more responsibility on the chief officers and the captains.
The current four-chief system makes it more difficult to get two chiefs to an accident or fire. Ballenger will become a ready backup, lessening the burden on the other chiefs, especially Chief Dave Roberts, who became permanently on-call in the reorganization.
Ballenger and his wife Laura live smack in the middle of El Dorado Hills. He claims he can catch Engine 84 on most calls.
A neat stack of protective firefighter garb, Ballenger’s “turnouts,” are already staged in his Oak Tree Village garage.
He cites Fry as his most prominent mentor, but laments that the district hasn’t always mentored well at the chief level. “We’ve done much better up to captain, and we’re getting better at mentoring our chief officers now,” he said.
Might he available? Without hesitation he responded, “I’ll work with anyone I think is a strong candidate.”
Ballenger said he’s confident the organization’s next generation of leaders, “can become great chief officers here,” he said. “Guys like Anselmo, Brady and Bresnahan leave the future of this place in good hands.”
He praised the efforts of the Budget and Negotiations Committee on the 2011-12 budget and union contract. “Right now the organization is healthy,” he said. “The relationship with the union is strong. We’re lean and everyone’s working hard to maintain a unified mission.”
Planje extolled his former engineer’s fastidiousness, a trait Ballenger chalks up to “controlling what you can.” Situations can go sideways in this business pretty quick, he continued. “You can’t control everything, so you try to control the things you can.”
Fire is more predictable than people, Ballenger added. “Fire science helps us predict what fire will do but when people are involved, you never know for sure what’s going to happen.”
His most frightening moments have been vehicle accidents, he said. The sound of screeching tires has chased him off the freeway more than once.
Planje watched his friend mature from a devil-may-care lady’s man to a devoted Christian husband. “Laura tamed the wild man in Brad,” he said. “She brought a calmness to him that made him a better firefighter and a better man.”
Ballenger acknowledges both Brads, and attributes the change to “Laura and Christ.”
He met and married Laura in 1994 and became a practicing Christian shortly thereafter. But it wasn’t a case of the new girlfriend dragging the guy to church. His faith was born in the tragic death of a child and a demonstration of courage and faith by a grieving parent who became an important figure in his spiritual growth.
Shortly after he and Planje teamed up at Station 84, they responded to a medical assist call. Ballenger’s eyes water as he recalls the haunting image of a man running toward them carrying the broken and limp body of his mortally wounded daughter in his arms, the horror of the loss etched on his face.
The girl, 8 years old at most by Ballenger’s recollection, was practicing ballet in her garage. Somehow, a large, heavy cabinet fell on her, causing major trauma.
“I put her on tail board of the engine and started working on her,” recalled Ballenger. He continued CPR all the way to the hospital, to no avail.
He and Planje attended the funeral. “It was the only time I ever saw him cry,” said Ballenger.
The girl’s mother, Denise Astol, walked into Station 84 about a week later and to Ballenger and Planje’s amazement, thanked them for their efforts, explaining that her husband blamed himself. She hoped they weren’t suffering similar guilt, and assured them that they’d done all they could to save her daughter and that their efforts were appreciated.
Ballenger couldn’t believe his ears. “I looked right at her and asked how she could possibly be this strong,” he said.
Astol explained that she was a Christian and was secure in the knowledge that her little girl was in Heaven. Ballenger had never witnessed such a profound display of faith. The two made a connection that day.
“We kept bumping into each other, always at these important moments,” said Ballenger. “I told her I wanted to marry Laura before I told Laura.”
Ballenger became one of the first to learn that Astol was pregnant again.
Ballenger and his bride-to-be began visiting area churches, eventually settling in at Oak Hills in Folsom.
“In the fire service we see tragedy, and one of the things it does is make us appreciate simple, beautiful things,” he said. “I love roses. I love mowing the lawn.”
After a couple short vacations, Ballenger said he plans to expand his volunteer efforts from fire service to his church. He’ll also do some dog therapy work.
“We love it here,” he said. “This community has given to me for many years, so why not give a little bit back?”