Ed Bermann was always going to be a firefighter, and since 1975 he’s been just that. But at the end of this month, Bermann will be walking away from the job he loves. State statute requires firefighters to retire at age 65, and on Bermann’s next birthday in August, he’ll hit that milestone.
A lifelong Brookfielder with deep family ties to not just the village but its fire department, Bermann’s last shift at the firehouse on Shields Avenue is July 26. After that, he’ll put away the fire hat, coat and boots for good.
“The first thing I’m going to give myself,” said Bermann, “is the rest of my life off from work.”
Although given the chance, he’d probably hang around a little longer.
“In a way it’s good [that the state law is forcing retirement] because I might be tempted to try and do it longer,” Bermann said. “So I’m glad they put a limit on it. Let somebody else do it.”
Bermann has held every rank in the department, save the rank of chief, in his years as a firefighter, working his way up from a paid-on-call firefighter to captain, the rank at which he’ll retire.
“Eddie has two families — the Bermanns and the fire department,” said Lt. Mark Duffek, one of Bermann’s best friends and fellow Brookfield firefighter for the past 36 years. “At the drop of a hat, he’s there.”
Bermann grew up in Brookfield at the corner of Fairview and Harrison. His dad, a union electrician, and his mom, who worked for village hall in the code and finance departments for more than 25 years, married in 1944 and built the family home.
Born a few years after his parents settled in Brookfield, Bermann recalled playing in the still-developing neighborhood, particularly on the vacant lot — the “prairie” — located kitty corner from home. He wound up buying the home built on that lot and still lives there.
He attended St. Paul Lutheran School in Brookfield, a member of the first K-8 class to study in the “new” building. Bermann graduated from Riverside-Brookfield High School in 1970 and went to Northern Illinois University, where he got a bachelor’s degree in geography.
“I just found the subject interesting,” he said. “I just wanted to get a college degree because no matter what I did, I knew the degree would help.”
But the fire service was always hovering as a career. His ties to Brookfield date back to the village’s early years at the turn of the 20th century. His family, he said, claims the Feely family — the Feelys ran a newsstand/general store for years in downtown Brookfield and their son, Eddie, died while serving in the Army during World War I — as relatives.
Two of his uncles, Bob and Wilbur Langele, were part-time firefighters in Brookfield. A July 4, 1950 photo of the two men posing with an engine in front of the main fire station along with other firefighters is the screen saver of Bermann’s computer inside the Shields Avenue station.
Their influence must have been strong because Bermann has wanted to become a firefighter since he was 5 years old.
“Because of my family being in it, I developed an interest in it,” he said, “and I thought it was cool that Brookfield had a full-time fire department.”
Shortly after graduating from college, he signed up to be a paid-on-call firefighter, responding to calls between stints delivering cookies, laying carpet, and working for a neon sign company.
At the time, the main fire station was in the 3800 block of Prairie Avenue (it’s now a parking lot) next to Johnson Funeral Home.
On the same day in 1979, Bermann got offers to become a full-time firefighter at both the Pleasantview Fire Protection District and the village of Brookfield. The choice was easy.
The department during the next four decades would rely on Bermann to shoulder many responsibilities. In addition to being a mentor to younger firefighters — as he was for Duffek and Patrick Lenzi, the present fire chief — Bermann has been the go-to person for all kinds of things, from radios to department history.
“He’s created quite a legacy here,” said Lenzi. “I guess we’ll all have to step up in the future.”
If there’s a local fundraiser or a block party or an event where fire trucks and their ladders are needed to serve as ceremonial arches donning American flags, Bermann was the person to talk to.
He’s the department’s incident commander, making sure firefighters are deployed correctly and responding efficiently and safely. He handles scheduling and payroll.
“I don’t know how you ever fill the dedication that he has,” Duffek said. “It has to come from your heart.”
He became the department’s unofficial historian early in his career as a member of the Firefighters Association.
“The position of historian they stuck to the low guy on the totem pole,” Bermann said. “I just never lost interest in it. Most of it is just in my memory, but some of it is written down.”
He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the department’s fire calls, stretching back for years. At some point in his career he started keeping a running log of fire calls, listing the dates, addresses, severity and whether there were fatalities.
He’s run into some strange findings, like the fact that there were five structure fires at two houses (and their garages) in the 3400 block of Grand Avenue between 1986 and 1989.
He can rattle off years and addresses for many fires, like the 1977 fire in the 9400 block of Jefferson Avenue that claimed the lives of five children. Nowadays, there is counseling and stress debriefings available for firefighters who witness such horrific events.
“Back then we were told to suck it up,” he recalled.
In 1981, a fire roared through a building at 9501 Ogden Ave., with one victim forced to seek refuge on a sign hanging by chains from the façade. Bermann, with the aid of passersby, got a ladder up to the man and rescued him. He also lost a bit of a finger during that rescue.
“It never did grow back right,” Bermann said of the nail, which had torn away.
On many occasions, he responded to fires from home on off days. He’s got a set of clothes at the station and another at home in case there’s an alarm when he’s off duty.
“I always liked it when I was a new firefighter and off-duty guys came to help,’ Bermann said. “I always appreciated someone coming to give me a hand. If that pager goes off, I’m coming to help you.”
Responding from home isn’t an option for many of the department’s firefighters these days. There’s no residency requirement, and Bermann, Lenzi and Duffek are the only ones who still live in Brookfield.
Although he could have moved away, that never really crossed Bermann’s mind.
“My friends and family are here. This is my home. This is where I belong.”
In retirement, he will be able to devote more time to his hobbies, which include model railroading and antiques. He’ll also continue to play hockey, something he’s done about twice a week for decades. Maybe he’ll do a little traveling. And there are always projects around the house kitty corner from his boyhood home.
As for the hole he’s going to leave when he clocks out later this month, Bermann indicated he wasn’t worried.
“It’ll still go on,” he said. “This department was around for a long time before me and it’ll be around a long time after me.”