Tricounty News

Hometown Heroes - Volunteer emergency responders

Picture this, if you will. It's 11:25 p.m. on a Thursday night. It's been a long, hard week with snow and blizzard conditions earlier in the week, and bitterly cold temperatures ever since. It's about 6 below (and dropping) tonight.

Dinner is long done. The kids' homework is done, and they've been asleep for a couple of hours now. You're bundled up in your jammies for the night, catching a little late-night television before falling asleep. You've finally warmed up after being out in the weather today, and the thought of bedtime starts to dominate the part of your brain that's still conscious.

Then your pager goes off. A structure fire off of Highway 55. Maybe a house, maybe a shed; the dispatcher doesn't specify. You shift into automatic mode, and you're dressed, in your car, and headed up the road toward the fire hall in about a minute and a half. (Did I mention that it's 6 below?) You might be out for an hour, or it may take until dawn.

Like so many other communities, Kimball is blessed to have 30 volunteer firefighters, men and women who are willing to temporarily stop their regular lives in order to put out fires, assist in car accidents, and aid those who are in medical emergencies. No matter what they're doing, and no matter what time of day or night.

When the county dispatch call comes, these volunteers usually don't know the names of those they will be helping. Sometimes they do. What goes through their minds when they're called for medical assistance to someone they know? What happens when they're called to help unknown victims, and one turns out to be a friend? Or someone they had a fierce argument earlier that week? These are questions that I, not a volunteer firefighter, have the luxury to ponder.

Anyone can volunteer for a local fire and rescue department. There will be requirements to live or work in the service area, or within so many minutes of the fire hall. There are, of course, physical ability requirements. And then there's training. A full year of training before you can work a fire on the front line, without constant supervision, and a good two years before you're considered ready. And then there's continuing training - on equipment, procedures, situations - at monthly meetings.

All this for a yearly check of $8 an hour for calls answered.

But these volunteers don't serve 20 years or more for the pay. They do it, in part, for a pension they're eligible for after meeting those requirements. But mainly they do it for their communities. Because they can. And because it's the right thing to do.

Volunteer fire departments are funded by the communities (cities and townships) they serve. They may receive money from the state. They hold fundraisers for buildings and equipment, and sometimes they receive grants. But they would be nothing without the dozens of volunteers who are willing to interrupt their workdays and family time to help their friends, neighbors, and strangers - in the cold, heat, blizzards, swamps, wind, rain, and dead of night.

I've gone out and taken photos of the Kimball, Watkins, and South Haven volunteers at fires in the middle of the night, car accidents in the middle of the workday, and several in-between. The best photo ops are those at training exercises, practice-burning down houses or responding to a pretend trainwreck or other emergency. These are great opportunities to see and photograph our hometown heroes doing their jobs, but without any real victims.

I photograph our hometown heroes in action whenever possible, to honor their service and sacrifice. I have to be careful, and respectful, at emergency scenes. It's sometimes disturbing, and sometimes a relief that the call was for nothing serious. But I don't always go.

I didn't go out that cold December evening to photograph Kimball firefighters putting out a house fire. For one thing, I was comfy and settled in for the evening. It was, after all, 6 degrees below. But there were two more important reasons: my cameras don't take good pictures in the dark, and they would quickly fail (and probably break) in the bitter cold; and responding to a fire along the highway in the middle of the night could be potentially dangerous, both for me and emergency personnel.

So, the next time you hear sirens, I encourage you to say 2 quick prayers: one for help, calm and success for the victim(s) of the emergency, and the other a prayer of thanks for the emergency responders.

Where would we be without these selfless volunteers? We don't even want to think about it!

If you are interested in joining a volunteer fire and rescue department, you can find more information on-line at www.volunteerFD.org. Then contact your local fire chief to see when there may be openings.

Jean Doran Matua, Editor