One Last Call: Fireman Steve Fleak retires after 28 years

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One thing to know about interviewing a fireman: you catch them when you can. I had barely gotten the seat warm next to Battalion Chief Steve Fleak when the call came through—an accident on highway 66. Fleak and his team left to attend to the scene, and not wanting to miss my chance to watch these guys in action, I followed along.

The accident wasn’t a bad one, thankfully. The weather still somehow made it worse, with the freezing rain and a chilly wind bringing in the onset of a cold front that would give us a brief pre-Christmas snow. While the police handled the incident, Chief Fleak and myself retired to his truck to wait out the situation and continue our interview.

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Chief Steve Fleak is retiring after 28 years on the Sapulpa Fire Department.

He had said to me that though he loved what he did, “Firefighting is a young man’s job.” As I tried to imagine what it must be like to do this several times a week, 24 hours at a time, I began to see what he meant. And the funny thing was, there wasn’t even a fire happening now.

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Everyone knows that firemen aren’t just for fires, and Fleak has seen more than his share of non-fire calls. “We’ve handled everything from an iguana getting stuck in a tree, to anything else you can think of,” he said. Including, of course, car accidents.

We watched an elderly man passing the scene of the accident slow to almost a dangerously low speed to get a good look. One of the other firemen remarked that he’d get run over if he didn’t speed up. Fleak pointed out that it was the reason we were parked at such an odd angle—if someone did hit the truck, hopefully it would deviate the crash away from the accident that had already happened. I asked Chief Fleak if that sort of thing happened often.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “Especially lately. We’ve had more secondary accidents in the last 12-15 years because of cell phones,” he remarked.

Back at the station, I settled back into the chair to ask more questions about the personal side of his life that wasn’t chasing the next fire all the time. He quickly and generously credited his wife Tami, who married him right as he was becoming a fireman and stuck with him through all the late nights, long shifts and tough calls.

“When we were married, I was twenty-five and she was twenty and this has been all she’s known,” he said, adding that through the last 28 years, she’s become a strong supporter of Fleak and his team, serving on the auxiliary team to help them out in especially long crises with food and drinks and whatever else is needed.

Tami herself a strong supporter of our town serving as the Director of Main Street for several years, and now working at American Heritage Bank. She told me that that she was overwhelmed with the amount support and gratitude her husband was receiving.

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Battalion Chief Steve Fleak is retiring after 28 years.

“I have watched a lot of people come and go,” she said,  “and I have never, ever seen the outpouring from firefighters about missing someone as I have for him. It’s been a truly beautiful experience to watch these last shifts.”

She remarked how just the night before, he was working a house fire and she received photos of Chief Fleak doing what he does best, and messages from the guys at the scene on how much they were going to miss him. “He is one of the best men I know and I’m lucky enough to call him mine,” she said.

It’s no surprise that the first thing Steve said when I asked what he’ll do with his time now, is “I’m looking forward to spending more time with Tami.”

Will he miss it?

“I’ve enjoyed my career. It fits me really well. It has been rewarding, but it’s a young man’s job,” he said.

Of course, when you go on 9-10 runs per shift, at least three shifts per week, and you’re a department that covers roughly 100 square miles, not every job is going to be a win. I asked if he could remember any especially tough calls. His face went somber and he was quiet for a moment.

“You know, you get calls that involve a child, and maybe you hear later that they didn’t make it, and you wonder to yourself: ‘could I have done something better?’ but something that has helped me is to remember that whatever happened we didn’t cause it, we were there to make it better.”

Whatever happened, we didn’t cause it, we were there to make it better.

Perhaps the best memory that Chief Fleak will have is the knowledge that his son Paden is also a firefighter, starting as a volunteer with Kellyville, and eventually making his way to Sapulpa. Sapulpa has a nepotism law that would normally frown on that sort of thing, but the department and the city were able to come to an arrangement, where so long as Paden didn’t serve under his father, he could be a part of Sapulpa’s Bravest.

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Chief Steve Fleak, left, stands with his son Paden, in front a truck at Central Station. Paden, now 27, is also a Sapulpa Firefighter.

Steve’s last official day is December 31st, but on Wednesday, January 3rd, there will be a celebratory lineup, with a flag presentation and a special last alarm and message of thanks from dispatch.

In a town where it’s been difficult at times to keep and fund a fire department of 53 firefighters, Fleak says his hometown roots are what kept him from going to try for the Tulsa Department or some other place where he might make more money. “I had my kids down the street on one side at school, and my wife down the street on the other side at Main Street,” he said. “You just can’t put a price on working in the community where your family is.”


All photography provided by the very talented Madison Stem at Mad Creations. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.