FLINT, MI – His love affair with becoming a firefighter began as a child.
“When I was 7 years old, my father took me and my neighbor to the fire station…for the first time,” said Rico Phillips. “When I got a chance, the firefighters let me sit in the truck. I said this is it. I definitely want to be here, so that’s really where my dream began.”
Phillips often found himself taking a bicycle ride down to a parking lot across from Flint Fire Station No. 1 off Fifth Street and sit there with hopes seeing the lights flashing and hear the horn blaring as one of the fire engines roared out of the building and to a scene along a city street.
It’s a scene that played out on the TV show “Emergency” that he loved to watch and led to every toy he wanted being a fire truck or ambulance or police car and wearing a yellow raincoat and plastic red fire hat while pretending his house was a city and he’d go around putting out fires, “in my mind, in my imagination.”
“Sometimes, my day would be made and other times, I’d leave (for) home a little disappointed, but I thought oh, maybe tomorrow,” said Phillips, who retired after 27 years of service on the city’s department.
One afternoon, as Phillips sat across the street, a firefighter out in front of the building called him over.
“Hey, kid, come here,” Phillips recalled Charles “Abe” Lewis yelling out. “He said what are you doing sitting over there all the time? I told him. He said, well, if you wanted to come over to the fire station, why didn’t you just come over here?”
After their first encounter, Phillips said Lewis took him under his wing “to the point where I would visit the fire station virtually every day that he worked.”
“He was just this giant figure but had a heart of gold,” said Phillips, with his education in firefighting beginning, including learning how the trucks worked.
“I knew how to pump off the fire truck before I was 13 years old,” laughed Phillips, who’d sit down with the other firefighters as they had meals. “Just made me feel welcome.”
As Phillips got older, he began to realize the hard work needed to do the job. A teacher filled him in on the thousands of others looking to do the same thing.
“That number still resonates in my head,” he said. “Something he said, in my head, turned to my heart and I said I’ve got to figure this out.”
Phillips went to the American Red Cross in eighth grade and signed up for advanced first aid and CPR classes, a move he found intimidating because he was the youngest person.
“It gave me my first glimpse of I can do this,” said Phillips, joking he didn’t even have a wallet at the time to put his certification cards in upon completion.
While at Flint Southwestern Classical Academy where Phillips graduated from in 1987, a teacher who’d learned he had the training approached him about becoming a student trainer for athletics teams during which a fondness for hockey began to grow that led to him becoming a referee.
“I didn’t know what a trainer even was,” said Phillips, but the opportunity got him into an opportunity to helps others with first aid in a hands-on, real-life scenario while building confidence in himself.
During Phillips’ sophomore year, those skills came to the test after a pitcher on the baseball team collapsed and went into full cardiac arrest.
“I had to spring into action,” said Phillips. “I worked feverishly and there were some things I didn’t anticipate like how it felt to actually to do CPR on a real person. It sends chills to my spine today because the very first time I had doing that I was 15. The atmosphere, how everybody was screaming “Come on, Rico, you can help him…it was so intense.”
The pitcher eventually died at the hospital, an event that stunned Phillips.
“In my mind, I thought I didn’t do something right. My hands were supposed to put life back into him. That’s what I was trained to do, that’s what I was going to do,” he said. “It’s the first time I realized life wasn’t like the show Emergency…It put me to a spot where I actually wanted to step away from helping people because I was fearful of that happening again, it was so emotional.”
But Phillips was later called to the principal’s office where administrators, the team, coaches, and counselors waited for him along with the pitcher’s mother.
“She wrapped her arms around me and thanked me. For a brief moment, I thought how can you thank me? He died,” said Phillips. “Before I could say anything or utter anything…she said thank you for giving us hope.”
From that moment, Phillips said it dawned on him what his role would be as a first responder.
“It’s just to offer hope. That’s all us first responders can do is offer you hope. When you make that call, you hope they hurry up and get there,” he said.
While trying to get on at the Flint Fire Department in 1989, Phillips obtained his EMT license and working in private EMS, learning the territory in the city.
He also spent a year in Flint Township with the fire department where he received certification and initial training.
“I’d seen some tragedy there within my first month,” said Phillips, witnessing a man burned alive after being trapped inside a vehicle following a crash. “I just couldn’t get to him and it was horrifying.”
Within the same weekend, a woman and her two grandsons died in an apartment fire.
It was the second time Phillips questioned his career choice, but he pushed forward and found a spot at the Flint Fire Department in October 1992.
He got a call the same week after applying in Ann Arbor, but Phillips said: “At that point in my life, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”
In 1995, it was all almost taken away after Phillips fell out of a boat and began to sink underwater.
“That was a defining day for me,” he said. “When I was tossed out of my boat and the boat almost hit me two or three times because it was out of control…and I realized I was in trouble and I panicked quite a bit.”
As he kept going under, Phillips looked up in the sky “and prayed it was going to be easy because I was prepared to go because my body had just given out.”
A man came by moments later and saved his life.
Back on shore, Phillips said he realized “God left me here for a much bigger purpose. There’s a reason.”
“My purpose is going to be to give of myself in ways that I’d never even thought of,” he said. “I know that it wasn’t just being in the union, doing these little steps. It was give of yourself, give of your total self and you’re going to reap the rewards, is what I found out later.”
Phillips immediately felt the camaraderie after joining the department and later gained interest in community outreach, including expanding the firefighter’s field day and establishing a juvenile fire setter program through Hurley Medical Center entitled Straight Talk.
The in-service program brought in juveniles who had been identified as fire setters or potential fire setters to teach them about the dangers of their actions or possible actions.
“We reached many, many kids,” said Phillips. “What I’m most proud of is we had no recidivism.”
That grew Phillips’ interest in teaching fire safety, which meant to him “preventing fires was much more effective than putting them out.”
“At the putting-them-out stage, the crisis has happened,” said Phillips. “The worst day of someone’s life is happening and the things are destroyed. If we can prevent that from happening, we’d done our job much better than just putting the fires out.”
Phillips tells children they need to listen and pay attention “because this may be the very last fire safety lesson you get.”
Over the years with the department, Phillips commented: “I can always say that throughout my career, I always put my best foot forward.”
“My heart has always been and always will be with the Flint Fire Department,” he said.
The most gratifying thing for him in looking back at his career is running into a young adult thanking him for teaching them fire safety.
Phillips said it’s difficult to put down the badge he’s proudly worn as a firefighter, but he acknowledged having the ability now to see himself as something other than a firefighter.
“I’ve got 10 good years of work left in me,” said Phillips, 50. “I know over the next 10 years I want to continue to impact my community.”
Part of his upcoming ventures include expanding the Flint Inner-City Youth Hockey program — for which he was recently awarded the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award — by going out into surrounding communities and providing floor hockey in schools and street hockey in neighborhoods over the next year.
“What we hope to do is build rapport with the community and the kids that we’d like to see be a part of this,” said Phillips. “It keeps our program valid and consistent year-round.”
The program also has formed a board of directors and is working to become a nonprofit organization, establish a website, become more self-sufficient, but also provided a larger connection to the hockey world outside of Flint.
Phillips is expected to speak with OHL teams and leadership at an upcoming forum about the program, how it works, and how to get more people involved.
“Our program being free is so important, not just because we don’t want kids to not have to pay, but it’s so they don’t have any reservations about this sport that they don’t know anything about,” he said, with help from a dedicated group of volunteers. “From that extent, it’s been so successful.”
The accolades he’s received over the years, Phillips said, pale in comparison to being part of crews, firefighters “that have been able to help people, either by saving their life or just saving their house, or saving their day.”
“I have no regrets, not one regret for the career I’ve been able to put together,” he said.