Seymour firefighter retires after 25 years of service

Mark Vehslage is quick to share the credit.

Whether it’s checking the firetrucks and equipment, cleaning the station, fighting fires or responding to a medical call or wreck, the 25-year veteran of the Seymour Fire Department said it has always been a team effort.

Even though he may have had the rank of lieutenant or captain on his navy polo, Vehslage relied on his fellow firefighters to get the job done to protect and serve the city.

"I never, ever wanted to make anybody do something I wouldn’t have gone and done myself," he said. "I was fortunate to have guys that they got it without having to be told. They knew what we needed to do."

Vehslage, 51, has had time to reflect on his career since working his last shift in mid-April. With banked sick and vacation hours, he will officially be retired at the end of July.

"It got to be time," he said of deciding to retire. "I would have liked to have gotten a couple more years in, but it just comes to a point where it’s time. I need to be home. I’ve enjoyed being home. I miss being with my guys, working with the guys, though."

Firefighting wasn’t Vehslage’s first career.

After growing up on a cattle farm in Brownstown and graduating from Brownstown Central High School in 1987, he earned a degree in horticulture from Vincennes University in 1989.

Before Vehslage headed off to college, Mike Willey with Naturalscape Services had told BCHS ag teacher Bob Myers he needed help for his Seymour-based landscape design business, and Myers suggested he talk to Vehslage.

"Mike stopped at the house one day and said he was trying to find some help. I was like, ‘Well, I’ll go try it,’ and I enjoyed it," Vehslage said.

That summer, Vehslage said he learned a lot about landscaping from Willey.

"I tell you what, that was a great help because I just enjoyed it so much," he said.

Vehslage worked as a crew foreman and designer for 10 years until starting his own business, Vehslage Landscape and Turf.

"With Mike, I’ve done three major landscape renewals on the hospital, did everything down Tipton (Street)," Vehslage said. "Any big bank, any big restaurant that was built in the ’90s, like Village Center, the bank out there, Steak ‘n Shake, all of the JCB branches, that was stuff I was involved with over the years."

His twin brother, David, also helped them.

"It was neat because I met a lot of people in town and I just enjoyed that, and you made a lot of friends just seeing them every time doing their property work for them," Vehslage said.

Meanwhile, in the early 1990s, he joined the Hamilton Township Volunteer Fire Department and completed his first- and second-class firefighter training.

Then in 1996, he participated in the tryouts for the Seymour Fire Department and was among the two hired out of about 90 people.

"I liked the chance to help people and be out there," Vehslage said of choosing to become a firefighter. "When I got to this level, it’s a lot different than volunteer. You’re seeing things a lot quicker than what we would on the volunteer side. … You have one chance to make somebody’s day better, where it’s headed because we’re seeing them at their worst time a lot of times."

The fire department also had begun doing medical runs earlier that year, so Vehslage had to take emergency medical technician classes for six months.

"A lot of guys here are EMTs now," he said of the current crew. "We’ve got just a handful of first responders, but most guys are EMTs or paramedics."

Vehslage said the first call he responded to with SFD was a natural gas leak in an apartment on Windhorst Court, while his last run was a woman who was really sick and had to be taken to the hospital.

One of his most memorable calls came in the fall of 1996 when the Fraternal Order of Eagles building in downtown Seymour caught fire.

"To this day, I gauged all of my fires I’ve been in by how hot I was in that fire through my mask," Vehslage said. "It was just like I had a blowtorch in my face. I felt like I had no gear to protect me."

Just a few weeks before, he had been in the building for the annual Liberty Under the Law Banquet, which honored first responders.

"It was one of those buildings you go into and I thought to myself, ‘Man, if this place ever burns, it’s going to be a total nightmare because there are no windows, it’s a solid building,’" Vehslage said.

He also remembers working when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred. The previous year, David had started at the fire department. Both brothers were on duty that morning and worked in landscaping in the afternoon.

"We went through that spell and time period a lot of things happened then, stuff changed," Mark said. "If you didn’t feel a responsibility to do something then, you were in the wrong business."

Over the years, Vehslage said the biggest changes were in equipment and technology. The weight of equipment they used to fight fires decreased about 10 pounds, and thermal imaging cameras became a useful tool.

"I remember our first ones we got, they were like carrying a small TV around," he said of the cameras. "(Now) it’s handheld, like the size of a flashlight, that guys can clip on their gear and it’s part of their gear going in."

Adding defibrillators on the firetrucks also was beneficial for medical runs. Then over the past year, Vehslage said they have used foggers and done a lot more cleaning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During his career, Vehslage spent time at all three of the city’s fire stations. Like all new firefighters, he started out the first year at the headquarters on East Street.

He then was assigned to Fire Station 2 on Fifth Street as a jump seat rider before becoming an inspector at the headquarters.

Vehslage continued to move up the ranks, serving as a sergeant on Engine 1 and a lieutenant at Fire Station 3 on Meadowbrook Drive before retiring as a captain at Fire Station 2.

Even though Vehslage may have held a higher rank, Firefighter John Toppe said he was a team player.

"There are some people that you just really click with. … Man, there’s nobody better to work with," Toppe said. "One of the best officers I’ve worked under. I worked under people that told you to do stuff. Mark was never that way. He was always the guy that ‘We’re a team.’ That’s how I feel like he thought. He was never demanding. He knew what to do, and we got it done."

Also during his tenure, Vehslage spent about 15 years as president of Seymour Firefighters Union Local 577. In that role, he advocated for the city’s career firefighters and helped organize fundraisers to benefit Hoosier Burn Camp and provide scholarships.

He also liked having elementary school kids visit the fire station during National Fire Prevention Week and making connections with a variety of ages in the community.

"It was always good to make a difference in somebody’s life," Vehslage said. "I had good guys I worked with, and those people in the community, when you go to the store and stuff, they see you and they like visiting with you and seeing you. You’ve got one chance to make a difference in somebody’s life or day."

Vehslage’s landscaping business merged with Premier Landscape Solutions in 2007, and his other career at the fire department is now coming to a close.

David remains on the fire department, but he was injured during a medical run about three years ago and is trying to get back to work, Mark said.

Mark’s son, Drew Vehslage, graduated from Seymour High School in June and plans to keep the family tradition going by pursuing a degree in fire science to become a firefighter.

"He has grown up around these stations, so I’m proud to see that," Mark said of his son’s career choice. "It’s a good career. It’s a good-paying career. The way firefighting is, he could go about anywhere right now because every city from Indianapolis Fire Department to the (Ohio) River is hiring. We’re going to be the same way here. We’ve got a lot of older guys getting ready to retire."

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Name: Mark Vehslage

Age: 51

Hometown: Brownstown

Residence: Brownstown

Education: Brownstown Central High School (1987); Vincennes University (associate degree in horticulture, 1989); first- and second-class firefighter and emergency medical technician certifications

Occupation: Recently retired after 25 years with the Seymour Fire Department

Family: Wife, Tammy Vehslage; daughter, Katie Vehslage; son, Drew Vehslage