The Madison Fire Department was part of Robert Recob’s life long before he became a firefighter here in January 1991.
His father, Ray Disch, was an assistant chief at the MFD and ultimately steered Recob toward a career in the department, transitioning from a job working in maintenance for Woodman's Food Market.
As a new firefighter, Recob was assigned to Station 6 (Badger Rd.) in March 1991. He stayed there for nine years until the MFD formalized the position of Apparatus Engineer, promoting and assigning him to an A/E post at Station 5 on Cottage Grove Rd.
At the time, Station 5 housed the Hazardous Incident Team's decontamination unit. It's where Recob earned the nickname "Decon Bob."
Then, when the Heavy Urban Rescue Team (HURT) took up shop at Station 8 on Lien Road, Recob followed and stayed there for the remainder of his career. With the new focus on HURT, his nickname naturally evolved to "Recon Bob."
Recob officially said goodbye to his Station 8 family and fellow HURT members on Wednesday, January 27.
For Recob, the old expression "trial by fire" was all too true.
His first day ever driving Engine 6 was May 3, 1991— the same day the Central Storage & Warehouse Company, a cold storage facility housing about 50 million pounds of food products, burned in a historic fire that wiped out two buildings and evacuated approximately 3,000 residents in the vicinity.
He remembers getting the page:
“I was making perch for lunch that day, and when we heard the tones for a fire at Central Storage I said, ‘Lieutenant, should I put the fish away?’ He looked at me and said, 'Kid, what could be burning in a freezer?’
"What could be burning in the freezer? Everything!”
In fact, high-fat food products like lard and butter fueled the fire which ultimately demanded a three-alarm response and taxed MFD’s on-duty resources.
While battling the blaze, Recob, his officer and crewmates were inside the engine calculating their next move. They found themselves confined by a laid-down hose in use by Ladder 1— one they knew they didn't want to drive over.
That’s when they heard a roaring rumble.
“I mean, it was very loud,” he said. “All the shelving with all the canned hams and stuff were starting to come down.”
He remembers hearing someone yell, “Get that engine out of there!” just before he slammed the accelerator and ran over the four-inch hose that rested before them.
“All of my supply line was buried. I got really close,” he said, describing how the shelving inside the warehouse kicked the walls out and would have tipped over the engine if they hadn’t moved out of the way precisely when they did.
Later, Recob went on to drive Squad 6 for the first time— a vehicle once utilized for extrications and supplying crews tending to fire scenes. That's when an elevator shaft caught fire at University Hospital.
"That was my introduction to those two rigs. I started 'under fire,'" he says with a chuckle.
Recob also served on Task Force 2, a regional heavy rescue team funded by state and federal dollars that could potentially be sent anywhere in the country if deployed. After Task Force 2 dissolved, Recob remained on the MFD HURT, which responds to special rescues and provides mutual aid to other municipalities when necessary.
The biggest call of his career, he says, was the collapse of the Rennebohm Pharmacy Building in 1999. He was on the team with then-Lieutenant Ron Schwenn when a construction worker was pinned underneath heavy concrete, iron, and other materials.
Recob says there were two giant cranes attempting to lift the debris, along with the airbags his team deployed. Nothing worked.
“They were giving us one more chance. We tried two times to lift him and we couldn’t get him to lift, so they brought two surgeons in, they set up an operating table right there, and they were giving us one more try," he recalls. "If we didn’t get him in one more try, they were going to go in and cut him off at the knees."
Knowing they had one last shot, the team gave a final hoist and successfully freed the worker from the concrete trap.
“When you looked over there and you were told that this guy was going to lose his legs if you didn’t get him out of here this time—and then we did and he ended up being okay—that was just a feeling of… a lot of emotions.”
Two and a half decades of front-line service to the city and the region certainly presented countless challenges, but what kept Recob going throughout the years were the people he had the pleasure to know.
“This is the best place in the whole city to work. You’re surrounded by capable people, and they all want to come here," he said. “I’m never here later than 6:30 in the morning (for a 7:00 shift), and half the people beat me to work!"
Recob says he'll spend more time hunting and fishing during his retirement, and he’ll continue traveling around to cheer on his son, a gifted basketball player who’s a sophomore in high school.
His wife, Tracy, continues to serve as a lieutenant on Madison's west side, and with several of his colleagues joining them on the lake or in the woods in their free time, the MFD family that Recob has cherished for the last 25 years will surely remain a special part of his life.
Pictured above: Recob behind Ladder 8 displaying Task Force 2 and HURT logos
Pictured below: Recob on scene following a tornado