Passion to protect: New Lawrence Fire Department chief fired up to be back in role


By Sam Elliott

During a career now in its 25th year, Dino Batalis had already served in every role within the Lawrence Fire Department. But as of the beginning of the month, he’s back for another stint in the top job.

“I’ve had every position in this fire department from firefighter to lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, deputy chief and fire chief,” Batalis, who began again as chief Jan. 1, said. “It’s a little bit of everything and I think that experience helps me because if you’ve been there, you know where these people have been and it’s easier to make decisions because you can relate with what they’ve done. Being in this job, I never want to lose touch with what the guys are doing out in the field.”

A South Bend native, Batalis first began as a reserve firefighter with the Lawrence Fire Department in 1988. He was hired on as a full-time firefighter in 1991 and worked his way all the way up the ranks and served as deputy chief in 2010 and as chief in 2011.

“He was there for a year under Mayor Paul Ricketts,” said new Mayor Steve Collier, who credited Batalis’ thorough experience with the department for his reappointment to chief. “He was an easy choice.”

Batalis, a battalion chief the past four years, is excited to get started with his second chance as chief. He said a mayor as committed to public safety as Collier is easy to work for.

“It’s pretty cool. I’m 58 and I’m probably more excited today than the day I got hired,” Batalis said. “I’m very excited to have the opportunity to do this job again because when you get to be 58 years old, you’re limited on time and on these chances coming up. I want to take complete advantage of having this opportunity and make sure I provide the safest environment I can for these firefighters and do whatever I can to provide the best services for the community.”

Batalis said that no matter what job he’s had in the department, doing what’s best for the public and keeping his staff safe on the job have been his top priorities.

“Regardless of the ranks I’ve had or whatever else I’ve done, if one of those two things doesn’t happen nothing else makes any difference,” Batalis said. “I told my wife the day I wake up and I don’t have a passion for this job, I’ll retire. But I have a strong passion for helping people and I want to make sure this fire department is the best it can be in serving this community.”

Part of making LFD the best it can be includes upgrades from aged trucks and equipment, with one large purchase scheduled for later this year – hopefully by early summer, Collier said.

“It’s costing a lot of money to keep these vehicles on the road,” Batalis said. “We are in the process now of ordering a fire engine and a ladder and then after that we’re going to get into planning of trying to replace these engines more frequently. Our ladder truck right now is about 14 or 15 years old and it’s tired. It probably should have been replaced three to five years ago … It’s something where there was no plan in place to replace this stuff and that’s what we’re trying to change. You have to plan ahead.”

Another example is the department’s air tanks and breathing apparatuses, which Batalis estimates will be approaching the end of their lifespan in 2017.

“We know that we need to start looking at that now,” he said. “There are grants available and we’re going to try to look at that to ease the strain on our budget, but the cost of those is around $315,000 to equip a department our size.”

The five stations within the Lawrence Fire Department employ just more than 100 people and serve approximately 48,000 residents. Three battalions rotate shifts of working for 24 hours before having 48 hours off.

“I’m having fun right now because there’s a lot of excitement in the fire department,” Batalis said. “It’s going to be a lot of work, but I see a lot of good things happening with a lot of good people here. It makes me excited. It’s already fun to come to work.”

Get to Know Dino Batalis

Hometown: South Bend, Ind.

Family: Wife of 34 years, Claudia, is a nurse; two daughters, 25-year-old Lauren and 21-year-old Nicole — “I’ve got two daughters and a wife that have always been very supportive of what I do,” Batalis said.

Life in Lawrence: Joined fire department as a reserve in 1988; hired as full-time firefighter in 1991; promoted to lieutenant, captain and battalion chief; served as deputy chief in 2010 and chief in 2011 — “What’s kept me here has been the firefighters that I work with,” Batalis said. “They’re fun to work with, they’re dedicated, they like helping people and I’ve just always been a person that likes helping people. When you surround yourself with that, why would I leave?”