BENTON HARBOR — Maurice Bruce was trimming grape vines at an area orchard when he received the phone call that would change his life.

It was a time when he was “at rock bottom,” due to personal and professional setbacks, he told members of the Exchange Club of Southwest Michigan on Tuesday, as he accepted their Firefighter of the Year award.

The call was from Dan McGinnis, director of the Benton Harbor Department of Public Safety. Bruce, a Benton Harbor native, had worked for the department since 2011 as a reserve firefighter, and then as fire investigator, fire inspector, code compliance officer, and reserve police officer.

McGinnis had a proposition for Bruce, but he would have to meet in 30 minutes. Bruce quickly went home to shower and made it to the meeting on time.

The director told Bruce he wanted him to travel to Alabama for a two-week training to become the city’s fire marshal. Bruce was reluctant at first, but his fiance, Kiara Washington, told him to “go for it.”

If nothing else, Bruce has learned how to persevere and work hard. He said he grew up in “the projects” and dreamed of a military career. He attended Benton Harbor High and took class at Coloma High as part of a magnet program and participated in the ROTC program.

He worked as a reserve firefighter in Benton Township and wanted to be a police officer, but he discovered he was color blind, which kept him out of the academy. After he trained as a firefighter, at his first house fire “I knew this was for me.”

In the nominating letter, Bruce’s superior said he responds to calls while off-duty, at the end of his shift, even on his days off. He is active in training new members.

Bruce recalled a fire call in which people were jumping from the roof when the crew arrived.

“That’s when things kicked in for me,” Bruce said. “I wanted to go to work and save some lives.”

As the fire marshal, Bruce said he encourages prevention.

“I’m always preaching safety, safety, safety,” he said. He urged residents to install smoke detectors and teach their children fire safety skills.

There are risks out there that most people don’t know about, such as the many rail cars that carry chemicals through the city, usually at night, Bruce said.

The Exchange Club has honored firefighters and law enforcement for 35 years. It took a break from the Firefighter of the Year award and decided to bring it back. They are hoping to recognize officers in January.

Sandy Martin, president of the Exchange Club, said they asked for nominees from 14 fire houses in northern Berrien County.

“We can’t thank you enough for your time and your service,” Martin said.

Other nominees who attended the lunch at the Elks Club were Mike Mattix, chief of North Berrien Fire, a 35-year veteran; Joseph Ehrenberg, who has been with the city of St. Joseph full-time since 1998 and was a reserve with St. Joseph Township before that; and Lt. Tim Forker with North Berrien Fire and a paramedic for Covert Township.

Mattix, who has previously been fire chief in Dowagiac, said the number of structure fires is dropping, but the blazes are “more catastrophic” because of the synthetic materials in construction and furniture.

The room temperature at the ceiling level can reach 2,200 degrees, Mattix said. “Aluminum melts at 1,700.”

“They fail so much faster,” Mattix said.

Ehrenberg said that a house in the Edgewater neighborhood collapsed within 15 minutes of the start of the fire.

Bruce said his fiance is aware of the risks involved in firefighting, but she is supportive of his career.

“When I leave the house I make sure I give her and my little girl a kiss,” Bruce said. “She tells me to stay safe.”

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak