Robert Penn retires after 36 years of fighting fires |

Robert Penn retires after 36 years of fighting fires

Rob Penn spent 36 years fighting fires in Nevada County.
Photo for The Union by Andrew Rolland |

Rob Penn was only 14 years old when he joined the fire department. He’s 50 now and his last day is today. Penn began at Station 91 (across from the Nevada County Fairgrounds), Feb. 22, 1981, as a cadet firefighter.

Penn recalled those years saying he used to hassle all the kids on the block. A neighbor pulled him aside and said Penn needed something to do with his time.

“He said, ‘You’re going to join the fire department,’” Penn said.

When Penn joined the department he wasn’t old enough to have a driver’s license. When he got a call he would ride his bike from his nearby house to Fire Station 91. Normally the first one there, he would start up the fire engine and wait for someone to come who was licensed to drive.

“When myself and a few other kids in the area also joined, we would ride our bikes to the fire station, we would catch the bus there right in front of the fairgrounds, go to school all day, come back, meet at the fire station, do our homework there and then on the weekends we would spend the night there,” Penn said.

Once the kids turned 16 they were able to get their licenses.

“Which we were able to drive fire engines then,” Penn said. “Nowadays it’s unheard of. Occasionally we’d drive a fire engine to school, to Nevada Union. It’s been known to happen a few times.”

Once Penn turned 18 he started full-time as an engineer for what is now Cal-Fire at the Higgins District. He spent five years there, then got hired by Watt Park Fire District (now part of Nevada County Consolidated Fire District) after the 49er fire of 1988 as a captain. He’s stayed ever since.

“I love the job but I’m just tired of it,” Penn said. “I’m tired of the tragedies. I’m tired of seeing people’s grieving. I’m tired of all that.”

After 36 years as a firefighter, Penn has learned a lot and met a lot of people. He knows many of the people when he goes to an emergency.

“It’s nice to see, from their end, a familiar, friendly face in their house when they’re having an emergency,” Penn said.

A firefighter’s schedule is normally two days on four days off, not including overtime.

“I have missed a lot of Christmases, Thanksgivings,” Penn said. “I’ve missed a lot of holidays.”

There have been many changes since beginning in the 1980’s. People have moved around, equipment has changed. But what bothers Penn the most these days is the tactics.

“I don’t know when firefighting became so technical,” Penn said. “It’s very simple … you take water and put it on fire. The end.”

When Penn first started out the fire department only responded to fires.

“When we first started running medical aids back in 1985, we used to have literally a fishing tackle box on the fire engine … now we carry huge medical bags with all kinds of equipment.”

Now most fire engines carry defibrillators and other important medical gear.

After Penn retires he plans to focus on his work with CalTrans during the winter and H2O Go during the summer.

“I met a lot of great people and had a real good 36 years,” Penn said.

Andrew Rolland is an intern with The Union. He can be reached at 530-477-4234 or

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