From hoses to guns: Longtime firefighters become cops

Becky Vargo • May 16, 2019 at 3:00 PM

Editor’s note: This is another story honoring those who serve the community in the role of police officer, in recognition of National Police Week, May 12-18.

Grand Haven Department of Public Safety officers Mike VanHook and Terry Turkelson were longtime firefighters when they were offered the opportunity to attend a police academy in 2017 and 2018, respectively. And firefighting was not their first job. 

“I was by far the oldest in the academy,” said Turkelson, now 49. He attended the four-month instruction at Grand Valley State University in 2018.

At 40, VanHook was also the oldest in his class when he attended in 2017.

Both men said it wasn’t an opportunity they even considered passing up, despite their ages. 

Turkelson said it was a matter of the economy, politics and city officials’ pledge to offer opportunities within their ranks that led to his change in employment. There’s more mobility within police department ranks, he added, and officers are more willing to change jobs to make more money.

So, when the economy is booming, a lot of people seek jobs in the private workforce, Turkelson said. When there’s a downturn, jobs in the public sector are more attractive.

Since the economy has been good for the past few years, and because of political unrest, departments have been seeing fewer applicants for their open positions. That’s when they started sponsoring employees for the job, Turkelson said.

VanHook, now 42, noted that he was “born and raised in Grand Haven.” He worked as a retail manager at The City Farmer before becoming a Grand Haven reserve officer.

“That was a volunteer position,” he said. “After 9/11, I wanted to help the community.”

VanHook said he rode a lot with Officer Dave Scott, who suggested that VanHook become a part-time firefighter and get paid, since he was at the station every weekend anyway. VanHook said that he went to the Ottawa County fire academy, worked as a part-time firefighter for a year and then went full time in 2006.

Turkelson said he waited to see how VanHook did before taking the city up on its offer to fund his police academy training.

The West Branch native had worked as a golf course supervisor for 15 years in the Grand Haven area before “I realized I didn’t like golfers.” In 2001, he became a paid, on-call firefighter. He was hired as a full-time firefighter in 2006.

It was around that time that the public safety director saw a need for full-time firefighters to make sure the equipment was being properly maintained, Turkelson said. The city’s police and fire departments had been transformed into a public safety department years earlier.

The department continues to have a full-time firefighter on each shift, as well as a fire marshal. The newer firefighters are also paramedics.

VanHook said it didn’t hurt that the city offered to pay for him to attend the police academy.

“I’ve never been one to turn down training,” he said. “It’s always good to better yourself.”

VanHook said the academy was almost like being at work, because so many of the instructors were from the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety.

“There’s close to 60 instructors from all of the area departments,” he said, noting that they teach on their own time. “They all have specialties they teach.”

After graduating from the police academy, the officers had four months of field training before going off on their own.

“You get through the academy, and then you learn our way to do things,” VanHook said. “Every day, you’re still learning.”

“I’ve worked side by side with these police officers every day and I didn’t realize that I never really knew what they did,” Turkelson said. “Before this, I would have questioned people’s motivation to be a police officer. But, at the academy, I realized they were all really nice people with the right motivation.” 

The two officers agreed that their life experiences were helpful with their newer line of work.

“Our age helps us,” VanHook said. “I’ve been working with the public my whole career. We know how to talk to people.”

Turkelson noted that police often see people at their lowest or toughest moments.

“I don’t think I would have been able to be as empathetic at a younger age,” he said. At the same time, Turkelson said his age is a disadvantage with technology.

They both agreed that helping people is the best aspect of their jobs.

The worst part for VanHook is the paperwork, and “the people who don’t like you because you’re wearing the uniform.” 

Turkelson agreed, noting cases of negative interaction for no reason.

“Like directing traffic when the bridge is closed,” Turkelson said. “We’re doing the best that we can.”

VanHook said he’s glad that he took the steps to become a police officer and hopes to continue into detective work and instruction. 

“I feel very blessed that they were able to send me to do this,” Turkelson said. “It’s an intimidating amount to learn. We’re fortunate we have officers who can help.” 

Both officers said that they would be around for the long term.

“This is our home,” Turkelson said.

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