When I first began working in Porter County one of the first firefighters I became acquainted with outside of those on my own department was Jim Branham. Coming in from Lake County I had become interested in the investigation of fires by tagging along with the investigator in my previous department and Jim in his own way sealed the deal for me to further my education after watching him work several fires we fought together. I enrolled in one of the fire investigation class being taught by then Deputy State Fire Marshall's Investigator Brad Sandberg at Jim's insistence. After completion of the program I felt that I was more than ready to go out and get busy but Jimmy showed me that I had so much more to learn. Over the next few years we worked side by side many times before a series of rather large fires in the fall of 1996 got a bunch of firefighters talking about forming a team to get the work done more efficiently. And in the fall of 1997 the idea finally blossomed and F.I.S.T. was officially formed. As a team we needed an identity and Jim had an "in" with someone and we placed orders for black jackets with the F.I.S.T. logo on them. And shortly afterwards F.I.S.T. took on a whole new meaning for the members of our team as a crusty old "jake" told a bunch of his younger firefighters that F.I.S.T. really stood for "F*#&*@G IDIOTS SHOVELING TRASH". And for whatever reason the moniker has remained as an inside joke between the members of the team since. One the first birthday of the team we held a little party, not because it was anything to celebrate but because there were many within our own county that wanted to see the team fall flat on its face. And in November the team began our twelfth year of service during which time our roster has changed often but until just a very short time ago Jim was the driving force that kept things on an even keel. Over the years that have passed since this all began Jim and I have had more than our share of disagreements and outright verbal spats over different issues facing the team. But in the end we were always able to come together as one regardless of the situation. And with each new team activation my respect for Jim continued to grow stronger. When Jim was appointed as Chief of the department where I serve in a career capacity I was overjoyed, yet as close as we worked on the team he never cut me any slack. It was "do your job or else" with him which made me respect him even more. When I received the news that he had been fired I seriously considered looking for a different line of work simply out of support for a really good leader who had gotten the "political" shaft. Jim actually talked me out of quitting and staying around to keep his successor in check. Jim never set foot back inside of the station until the day that the chief who replaced him was himself removed from office and I was appointed as the new fire chief. Then it seemed like every time I turned around Jim was either in my office or on the telephone with me about something. Throughout the years I have served as his Deputy Director we have lost countless hours of sleep and family time while working in near impossible conditions at times in order to seek the truth about how fires began. From the -10 degree day in Newton County to the 8 fun filled days in 100 degree weather in the basement in Ogden Dunes we were side by side all the way. He never let up, and just about the time I would begin to bitch he would come up with some corny joke or pick up his shovel and start working again to shut me up and keep me in line. In October of 2007 the doctors found a tumor in my belly that turned out to be cancerous. Following my surgery Jim went out of his way to keep me updated on what was going on as well as giving me so much moral support that eventually I would get better and return to shoveling "s*#t" again. And he was right. When he took me into his confidence last summer and told me about his own cancer and how far it had spread already I was all but devastated. He made me promise not to tell anyone on the team what was going on and I kept that promise until his health got so bad that he had to let everyone else know what was going on. And even then we talked multiple times each week as he kept abreast of everything the team was up to. Jim called me on the phone on Friday the 13th and we talked for about 30 minutes about what was happening. He had recently gotten his treatments switched to St. Mary's Hospital in Hobart so he would not have to endure the long car rides to Chicago several times each week. He seemed to be very happy and optimistic when a call dispatched to my station interrupted our conversation. The following Tuesday morning I was getting ready to leave work when Danny called and told me that Jim was asking to see me. I got over there as fast as I could and was devastated when I walked into his room. I simply did not recognize the man who I had worked elbow to elbow with for nearly two decades. When Judy announced that I was there he opened his eyes and even though his passion was still present I could see that it was masked by severe pain. Jim was barely able to speak to me during those next few minutes before the medications took hold of his body and his eyes closed. I was in shock as I knelt next to his bed, held his hand and prayed. And from the time I left the room until the time I said my final good-bye at his gravesite four days later I was a physical and mental wreck. As I sit and try to write tears are flowing and my heart is so heavy it seems like it will split in half at any moment. I have lost so much more than a co-worker over the last week...I have lost a friend I have known for nearly half of my life. As I sat in his room last week I made Jim a promise that by all that is Holy I intend to keep until the day we meet again. I will keep the memory of Jim and all that he worked so very hard to accomplish alive as long as I still have breath in my body. John E. Kepshire IAA-CFI Deputy Director - Porter County F.I.S.T. Chief - South Haven Fire Department February 24, 2009
On the evening of February 18, 2009 Director Jim Branham lost a most valiant fight with cancer and passed away at the age of 61 surrounded by his loving extended family.
In a career of public service spanning nearly 40 years, Jim spent 25 years as a member of the Liberty Twp. Fire Department where he rose through the ranks to the position of Fire Chief. He then moved to the South Haven Fire Department where he spent the next 10 years and also moved through the ranks to the position of Chief. In 2005 Jim moved once again to the Porter Fire Department where he held the rank of Safety Officer at the time of his passing.
A founding member of FIST, Jim has held the position of Director since the team was formed in 1997. Jim also served as President of the Porter County Fire Association from 1989 until he stepped down at the end of 2008 due to his health issues. During a November 2008 benefit to help his family defray medical costs Jim was presented with the Indiana State Fire Marshall's Meritorious Service Award.
On the morning of February 21 emergency service workers from throughout Northwest Indiana gathered to pay tribute as well as reflect with family and friends. As the service concluded and family, friends, and firefighters slowly moved to their vehicles the Porter County 911 Dispatch Center activated a series of tones announcing to all that our fallen brother had now answered his final alarm.
A procession over two miles in length followed as the engine carrying the flag draped casket slowly traveled from the funeral home to Angel Crest Memorial Garden. A pair of aerial ladders stood sentry over the entrance as a composite Color Guard of Porter, South Haven and Liberty firefighters escorted the procession through the silent gardens. And as the final notes of the piper faded across the wind swept knoll our dear brother began his newest assignment.
"THANK YOU JIM FOR A JOB MORE THAN WELL DONE"