Service above self

Volunteer firefighters say
risking their lives only part of the job

By Helen E. McKinney,
Contributing Writer

(July, 2002) In the wake of 9-11, Project Guild of Oldham county members have decided to honor the entire staffs of the county’s volunteer Fire-Rescue squads as the grand marshals of this year’s Oldham County Day.
Although fitting considering recent events of terrorism initiated against the country, it can be argued that these men and women are worthy of praise any time. Few other professions involve such acts of courage amid constant danger – and all voluntarily.
“It’s what they do behind the scenes that people don’t know about,” said Oldham County Day chairperson Beverly McCombs of Oldham County’s volunteer fire departments.

July 2002 Edition Cover

The Project Guild, which sponsors the annual one-day festival, select a person or group each year to honor. This year, fire-rescue workers from all eight departments will be riding in the Oldham County Day parade and honored at a special luncheon during the week preceding the festival, which this year is set for July 20.
These departments are located in Ballardsville, La Grange, North Oldham, Pewee Valley, South Oldham,Westport, Harrod’s Creek, and Worthington. The latter two are based in Jefferson County but respond to calls in Oldham County.
This is an honor that La Grange Fire and Rescue Chief Col. Mike Heilman said was “well overdue.” He said it took an event like Sept 11, 2001, to make the community see his departments importance.
Maj. Keith Smith said the La Grange department has decided to hold an open house on July 20 to increase the community’s awareness of just how a volunteer fire department operates.
The department will provide a fire-safety house to educate children about fire prevention, Smith said. This house will even have simulated smoke to make the experience more realistic. It will be set up in the parking lot across the street from the firehouse at Second and Main streets.
A survivor trailer will there, said Smith. This is a two-story structure geared for firefighter survival, said volunteer Captain Jim Sitzler, where trainees learn to “do it or die.”
Some of the other departments have held open houses in the past. The public will be able to view first-hand just what it takes to become a volunteer fire fighter.
Extensive training is required, covering all areas of firefighting. Everything from administrative duties, such as how to answer emergency calls, to how to handle hazardous materials and aircraft crash and rescue, are learned in training sessions.
Heilman said 150 hours of training is needed to complete a state Level I certification. An additional 20 hours must be completed before volunteers can ride on a fire truck. Once certified, 25 hours of annual training is also required of each individual in Heilman’s department, he said.
The Lexington-based State Fire Commission sets the standard for certain areas, in terms of how volunteers are to be trained, said South Oldham Fire Department Chief Eddie Turner.
Volunteers in Turner’s department take a 16-week recruiting class and build their way up to the 150 hours required by the state. Because of the need for more room, the South Oldham Fire Department will soon have a new firehouse located on Old La Grange Road in Crestwood.
Heilman said that all volunteers feel a certain amount of pride for their particular department and its work. Long gone are any rivalries among the eight departments because, Smith said, “We work with the other departments, all relying on each other for assistance.”
It takes a team effort, said Heilman, with the entire team contributing toward one goal when an emergency strikes. “We share a common interest.”
“Every fire department is unique to themselves,” Heilman continued. The apparatus each department has depends upon its location. The La Grange department answers calls to the railroad, correctional facilities and I-71. Due to the district’s proximity to the interstate, the department is equipped with a set of Hurst “Jaws of Life” rescue tools to aid in calls for auto accident response.
In addition to residential areas and horse farm calls, the North Oldham Fire Department district responds to 12 miles of the Ohio River, where boats are needed for river rescue efforts. While not all volunteers are trained for water rescue, Chief Rick Albers said his department has 10 swift water technicians and eight volunteers who work at the operations level.
The North Oldham Fire Department responds to calls in Prospect, Skylight and Goshen, where a new station is being constructed across the street from the present one.
“We work closely with the Harrod’s Creek department,” said Albers, because “they are the department closest to us.”
The Harrod’s Creek department owns a custom-built $600,000 rescue boat, plus other water rescue equipment that North Oldham is lacking. Because North Oldham’s proximity to the river, Albers said his department once “had a responsibility, but no capability” for water rescue. All that changed by teaming with Harrod’s Creek when the necessity arises.
Albers said rescue is slower on the river than on land, but his department is capable of handling rescue efforts due to three boats the department owns: a 22-foot Fire-Rescue cruiser, a 14-foot jon boat and a three-person wave-runner.
With two stations, the North Oldham district serves 8,500 people in 47 square miles. It is a publicly funded fire district using paid and volunteer fire fighters and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). Some Oldham County districts are strictly volunteer, while others receive a paid chief and paid daytime staff of volunteers.
“The County has grown so fast, I’m the first paid chief here,” Albers said. Due to this ever-growing population, the volunteer fire departments are always seeking volunteers. “We need people from the community,” said Albers.
To some, it’s addictive, said Heilman. “It gives you a sense of accomplishment. Its also a challenge because nothing is ever the same; you can never learn everything.”
La Grange Fire Department Training Coordinator, Maj. Adrian Doleman, said that it is “important for the volunteer fire fighters to be a part of the community,” and to be seen as such. Doleman’s job is to ensure that volunteers receive the most up to date training so they can serve the community better.
Many volunteers stay on the job for years, such as Capt. Sitzler, who was recognized for 25 years of service. When asked what brought him to join the department in March 1976, he replied, “I just saw a fire truck going down the street one day, and told my wife that I thought I would like to try out, and here I still am 25 years later.”

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