ESTERO — When Lt. David Ott became one of the first three firefighters on Estero’s payroll in 1985, the community consisted of five streets.
When a call came in, no map was needed.
With just a few hundreds people living in Estero, all the caller needed to do was give a name and firefighters new exactly where to go in their 1957 Chevy firetruck- a relic from World War II.
Good thing Ott was handy. He spent most of his first five years keeping the department’s hand-me-down vehicles running.
“Dave’s the type of person, no matter what needed done, he took care of it,” said Estero Fire Chief Scott Vanderbrook during a retirement breakfast Thursday to commemorate Ott’s final day. “There wasn’t a ‘no’ in Dave’s vocabulary. He was always the type of person who went above and beyond for the department and for the citizens of Estero.”
Ott was hired by Chief Joe Linzalone on Jan. 26, 1985, along with Lt. Brent Althouse, who remains at Estero Fire Rescue. Ott was a volunteer firefighter in Estero for three years before being hired full time.
He’s been through several fire chiefs and has watched the organization grow from a single station on U.S. 41 to four stations operating 24 hours a day. Estero Fire Rescue responded to more than 4,000 calls last year, a stark contrast to the 300 calls in Ott’s first year.
“We had a mismatched bunch of equipment at first,” recalled Ott. “Technology has come a long ways.”
Ott and Althouse both survived the “Wackenhut” ordeal of 1997, when then-Chief Jimmy Wright fired all the Estero firefighters and convinced the fire board to contract with a private company, Wackenhut. After public outcry, the tragic death of a Wackenhut firefighter, the resignation of half the fire board and the arrest of the fire chief for stealing picket signs, the original Estero firefighters were reinstated.
While those days were bleak, Ott prefers to remember the far more numerous sunny days spent with his “family” at the fire station.
“I’ve spent one third of my life with them for the last 26 years,” he said. “After a while, they become a second family to you.”
“He was that hardcore, old style firefighter, one of those guys who comes off tough. But once you get to know him, he’s like a big teddy bear.”
— Division Chief Todd Coulter.
Many tears were shed as Ott performed a final inspection of firefighters, who stood at attention as he greeted each one personally before being presented with the American flag from Station 44 on east Corkscrew Road.
“Personally, he’s been a great friend and a father figure,” said Lt. Felicia Rodriguez, who kept a stack of tissues handy for her welling eyes. She worked under Ott for 11 years. “Professionally, he pretty much transferred his knowledge to me. He’s been one of the greatest influences in my career.”
Although Althouse also got a bit teary-eyed when Ott embraced him, he lightened the mood with memories of pranking the “grumpy, old man” in their early years at the firehouse.
“We used to always play jokes on him to get him riled up,” Althouse recalled. Since his shift preceded Ott’s, Althouse and his cronies would use Armor All to wax up the fire truck’s seat, floor and pedals. “He’d go sliding all over the place.” A few expletives usually followed as the younger firefighters roared with laughter.
Ott was the oldest of the bunch, having started firefighting at age 32 after leaving his family’s construction business.
He was “old school,” a Vietnam War veteran who knew how to give commands.
“My first impression was a little bit intimidating,” recalled Division Chief Todd Coulter. “He was that hardcore, old style firefighter, one of those guys who comes off tough. But once you get to know him, he’s like a big teddy bear.”
Ott is now Coulter’s “hunting buddy,” frequenting Coulter’s hunting cabin in Tennessee. Coulter still marvels at Ott’s ability to fix anything, a skill he learned as a young boy growing up on a farm in northern Indiana.
“He’ll replace a whole engine in the front yard with tweezers and a screwdriver,” Coulter joked.
With a fairly young median age, Estero firefighters benefitted from Ott’s mentorship. “He takes a lot of experience with him,” said Fire Commissioner Dick Schweers. “He gave a lot of guidance.”
While his subordinates at Station 44 will miss many things about Lt. Ott, there is one they may not miss: his trademark alarm clock service. Ott would flip on the lights and bellow: “What do you think this is, a Holiday Inn? Do you want a mint on your pillow?”
In retirement, Ott looks forward to never missing a Sunday afternoon with his seven grandchildren. One more is on the way.
“Fire service has been good to me and my family,” said Ott, who was joined Thursday by his wife, Brenda, and three of their four children.
While he will have more time for hunting and woodworking, he won’t completely leave the field of emergency services. Ott plans to continue volunteering on the Urban Search and Rescue Team.
“It’s not been a job,” Brenda Ott said. “He loves it. He will really miss it.”