|Covi (click for larger version)|
May 13, 2014 | 03:57 PMAt the age of 40, Larry Covi discovered what he really loved doing.
Not that he feels his years selling electronic equipment for Western Electric and repairing electronics for Central Data in Chicago and running a White Hen Pantry in Lake Geneva for 10 years were a waste of time.
But none of that really stacks up to running into burning buildings, Covi said in a recent interview.
After 25 years on Lake Geneva’s volunteer fire department, Covi is retiring. He and his wife, LouAnn Reid Covi, are moving to Arizona to be closer to family.
For the past six years, Fire Lt. Covi has been working 20 hours a week doing fire prevention and fire inspections, said Lt. Dennis Detkowski, who heads the two-man inspections bureau.
Detkowski said he knew Covi has worked toward his retirement for a number of years.
“No more firefighting for me,” Covi said. “Like Clint Eastwood said in one of his movies, ‘a man has got to know his limitations.’ And I know mine,” said Covi. “It’s been an honor and privilege to serve on the fire department in Lake Geneva. It’s a very good group of dedicated men and women,” he said.
“I’m glad to see him go, but I’m sorry to see him leave,” Detkowski said in a telephone interview.
Detkowski said Covi was on the department and a firefighting veteran when Detkowski first joined the department 15 years ago.
“He was a good senior firefighter and mentor,” Detkowski said.
Covi said he and Detkowski inspected 1,000 businesses, factories and offices twice a year. They also inspect the common entryways and basements of apartments and condominium buildings. The inspections don’t extend to the residential areas of the condos or apartments.
“There’s a lot in this little town,” Covi said .
Covi said his parents “probably brought us here once or twice,” but he doesn’t remember being in Lake Geneva until he moved here in 1986 to take over the convenience store.
Covi’s ex-wife worked at the White Hen Pantry corporate offices, when he learned of a store franshise opening up in Lake Geneva. Covi said they decided to move to Lake Geneva and take over the store in 1986.
Two years later, he applied for the Lake Geneva Fire Department.
The family does have some public servants, Covi said. But no firefighters.
Covi said he had an uncle who was a police officer in Chicago, and his brother, Tom, is a police officer in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook. Covi said he was born on the south side of Chicago, in President Obama’s old neighborhood near the University of Chicago.
He said that, as a child, he was a regular visitor to the neighborhood fire station. There, he and other neighborhood kids would hang out, hoping the alarm would ring and they would get to see the equipment pull out with sirens blaring.
Those fire station visits either sparked his interest in the fire service or revealed a desire that spent years smoldering.
Covi started his fire career very late in life. In fact, he started after the age limit. Technically, the oldest a recruit can be for the Lake Geneva Fire Department is 35. However, officers on the department lobbied to get the age cutoff waived for him, Covie said.
Covi said he joined a class of 20-somethings at firefighter school. And then he took EMT classes.
While training as a firefighter, he also owned and operated the former White Hen Pantry at the corner of Main and Wrigley.
It wasn’t easy being a 40-year-old rookie wearing 70 pounds of equipment going in to a working fire.
“I probably had to try harder than those 20-year-olds,” he said.
Through it all, Covi said he was conscious of the fact that he was meeting people usually at the worst moment of their lives.
“We’d go to a fire and it would just be a day at work,” said Covi. But for the people who lived in the houses that burned down, or the people having medical issues, it was a life-changing event.
Covi said he tried to never forget that.
“You have to treat people like you want to be treated,” he said.
Covi said he could still remember a tragic Lake Geneva fire that took the lives of a mother and two children. That, he said, has stayed with him.
And then there were the traffic fatalities, accidents and fatal strokes and heart attacks during the medical calls.
“You see many things over the years,” Covi said. “You hope the next one is better than the last one. It’s not like TV where you save everyone.”
And, said Covi, the working environment for firefighters has changed radically over the past 25 years.
In his experience, it’s gotten hotter. The plastics and synthetics used in modern cars and in modern building construction burn faster and hotter, he said.
He said during his training in the 1980s, the rule of thumb was that a fire doubled in size every minute.
Since then, that time has shortened considerably.
“Now, it’s every 17 seconds,” he said.
In addition to burning hotter, the synthetics and plastics give off noxious fumes. Firefighters now wear their oxygen masks even when fighting car fires out in the open, because of the danger in inhaling smoke, he said.
“We have a lot better equipment now,” said Covi. “It’s not cheap, but we need it.”
Although he’s moving to Sun City West, far away from Lake Geneva, Covi takes his thirst for public service with him.
He said he would like to find a small volunteer department nearby that might be able to use his skills as a fire inspector or equipment operator.
“It’s an honor and privilege to be in the fire service,” Covi said. “I wish I had done something about this when I was younger.”