Off Beat: Firefighters cool off hot shots with ice cream penalty

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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When firefighters get their name or picture in the paper, they pay — in vanilla, or maybe chocolate chip mint.

This long-standing tradition says that any member of a fire or rescue crew caught in the media has to buy ice cream for the rest of the crew.

"That has been the tongue-in-cheek penalty for being on TV or in the paper," said Clark County Fire & Rescue spokesman Tim Dawdy.

Firefighters are known for being publicity-shy.

"They're hard-working, humble guys, so they don't want any kind of fuss made," Dawdy said.

This ongoing joke, however, is getting a healthy makeover at Clark County Fire & Rescue.

Dawdy said firefighters are more health-conscious and eat less ice cream than when he first started working in the field. Firefighters essentially train like professional athletes, he said.

Does this mean a decades-long tradition is fading, or just changing?

"When we do it, we generally bring sherbet or sorbet or frozen yogurt," said Tom McDowell, assistant chief at North Country EMS.

Do Vancouver firefighters turn down ice cream? "Oh, heavens no," said Steve Eldred, Vancouver Fire's division chief. "Not that they're not health-conscious."

Eldred says firefighters will set each other up by telling members of the media to snap so-and-so's photo or interview them.

At a fire in West Hazel Dell, Training Chief Mike Ciraulo pointed out which crew members "wanted" their photo taken.

None of the fire chiefs interviewed know how the tradition started.

"It's good-natured, it's a lot of fun -- and if the worst penalty you get is you have to buy ice cream for the team," Dawdy said, "it hasn't been a bad day."

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.