An experienced firefighter was sworn in Monday as the Portage Fire Department’s new engineer.
In the Common Council chambers of the Portage Municipal Building, in front of an audience of firefighters, law enforcement, family and city officials, Fire Chief Clayton Simonson Jr. introduced Capt. Matthew Asch, 40, as the department’s new engineer.
“The last time we did one of these was Aug. 16 of 1996 with Mark Bublitz,” Simonson told the group. Bublitz, one of four engineers, has since become president of the firefighter engineers union.
Simonson presented Asch with new headgear, a spotless black engineer’s helmet to replace his red captain’s helmet.
Asch joined the Portage Fire Department in 1998, two years after graduating from high school, as a paid on-call firefighter. He was promoted to lieutenant in 2005 and to captain in 2012. He becomes one of four full-time employees for the department.
In October, the engineer opening was announced with the approaching retirement of Michael Hudgens at the end of the year.
Asch, whose previous full-time job was as a crewman with Portage Utilities, was one of 15 applicants. Eleven proceeded to a physical agility test and then a driving test as the Police and Fire Commission narrowed the list of candidates. Finalists had a peer-panel interview with the chiefs of the Columbus and Lake Delton fire departments and a captain from the Baraboo Fire Department, and then were interviewed by the Portage Fire Department command staff.
Before joining the Portage Fire Department, Asch became familiar with the department as a student through the department’s Explorers Program, which was developed to introduce young people to the service, but has since been phased out.
During the swearing-in ceremony, Simonson went down a list of ways Asch had been involved as an on-call firefighter, including a handful of committees, mentoring, conducting training drills, becoming certified in hazmat response, and being a certified first-response instructor by the Red Cross.
Asked if he would like to say a few words, Asch said, “Thank you,” and “Thank you” again.
“I never thought it would be a reality,” Asch said after the ceremony. “I’ve been a paid on-call here for 20 years, a city employee for 18, and I never thought it would be a reality that I would be a full-time fireman in Portage.”
About five years ago, Asch heard there might be a retirement in the department on the horizon, creating an opening for a full-time position, “so I just put my head down and worked toward that goal.”
Although his hiring fills one vacancy, it also leaves another as the department looks for recruits.
“He was a captain on the paid on-call, so that position will be open and I already have a lieutenant position (open),” Simonson said on Friday. “So we will look at possibly promoting two members to lieutenants and the people who are lieutenants will be able to test to move up to captain.”
On Dec. 23, the department welcomed a new firefighter, Reid Barnhart, who is now wrapping up his introductory training at the Montello Fire Department, bringing the roster to 26 members, with three company captains overseeing six lieutenants, each company with five to six firefighters.
“We just put on a new one and we have an application for another one — applications are available at the station,” Simonson said. “We are always looking for personnel — male or female — who would like to become firefighters.”
For Asch on Monday, the promotion was one of focusing efforts after finishing work with Portage Utilities the previous week.
“Now today’s the day,” Asch said. “I used to work for the water utility taking classes by myself and through the fire department and now it’s just the fire department — concentrating on that.”