The Roundup -

Firefighting and Old Geezers


I grew up in a household where my father took the responsibility of volunteer firefighting very seriously. He attended every meeting possible and answered all the fire calls within his power to answer. We lived within blocks of the fire hall and when that siren began to scream, begging the volunteers to make haste to the fire hall, my dad dropped whatever he was doing and tore off on a dead run down the street towards the fire station.

Calls more often than not came in during the wee hours of the night, and I remember feeling very uneasy but also extremely proud of my father as the siren wailed, calling him to his volunteer duty. If the call came during the day, my dad would answer the summons if he could, as he worked at a business that appreciated the efforts of volunteer firemen and understood the important role these people played in the community. When my dad could not respond during work hours, if the emergency still existed when the five o'clock whistle released him from his working duties, he would go directly to the scene before he even came home from work.

We lived in a small town so we did not see an inordinate amount of calls during the years I grew up in that community, but my dad's commitment, sense of responsibility, and passion for his volunteer fire efforts made a lasting impression on me.

As a young adult, I wanted to follow in my father's footsteps and volunteer my services as a firewoman. However, when I could claim young adult status, we all still rode pterodactyls to school and women really were not encouraged nor welcomed to join the volunteer fire company. At that time, men still considered firefighting a man's job; women were expected to serve on library committees, sit demurely on the sidelines and cheer on their hero menfolk, or if we were deemed worthy, we were invited to make the coffee for the men. My feelings on that state of affairs could most politically correctly be stated as thanks, but no thanks.

So, as time passed the dream of serving as a volunteer with the local fire company became lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. That is, until I moved to Virginia City at the ripe older age of 66. A colleague from work invited me to serve on the volunteer fire company board, and I gladly accepted, figuring that would provide me with the means to partially fulfill the life-long dream of emulating a much loved and respected father.

At my first meeting of the fire board, I discovered that not only could three quarters of the volunteer firefighters in Virginia City claim senior status of 60 years of age or older, but that as an older woman myself, I too could join the fire department. Another lady, Toni James, who fits into my same age bracket, has served as a volunteer firefighter for years, so not only could I join this band of volunteers, I had a fellow female firefighter to guide me and give me encouragement. As Toni told me, "Anyone in this volunteer fire company under the age of 60 is still on probation." That made me smile.

When I enthusiastically relayed all this information to my husband, who will reach the age of 70 next month on Halloween, he decided to volunteer his services as well. So both of us began attending the Tuesday meetings to learn all we could about firefighting and emergency response, earn some safety certification, and serve our community in ways we both could relate to and that suit our temperaments and personalities.

We quickly discovered that locals really appreciate their firefighters. Members of the community sign up to feed us, and each Tuesday one of those community members provides enough supper to feed the 15 volunteers. We enjoy a delicious meal compliments of that particular community member, and then we receive training that arms us with the ability to fight fires, work at crash scenes, and to respond to any other conceivable emergency that may arise.

At our first meeting, other volunteers welcomed us warmly, and since the majority of them have lived through many decades and have their own balding pates and grizzled countenances, no one raised an eyebrow at our wrinkles and gray hair; they simply appreciated the extra hands we will provide. At the second meeting, we met the remainder of the volunteers. By the third meeting, we had available gear that fit issued to us. I have a coat, boots, helmet, and gloves, but no coveralls small enough to fit me; my husband has a helmet, coveralls, a coat, and gloves, but no boots that fit his rather large feet. Toni has ordered these items for us.

Gearing up in all this paraphernalia to face emergencies doesn't prove as simple as pulling on a pair of jeans. Fire resistant clothing by its very nature means it has several layers that prove thick and cumbersome. Sleeves and trousers don't bend like ordinary clothing, so stuffing myself into fire retardant material takes a few more minutes than one might imagine. This protective gear also weighs a lot more than street clothing. I figure by the time I wiggle into my fire gear I carry an additional 55 pounds on my body. Add an oxygen tank onto that, plus all the tools and assorted extras one might need crammed into the pockets, and I guess I will end up carting around an additional 65 pounds or so as I face an emergency. Add on to this the fact that when fires occur in the summer time, we are looking at an already very hot outfit, plus we carry an additional 60 plus pounds on our person. I can see a few difficulties looming on the horizon. I have a feeling I might get just a tad overheated and dehydrated on occasion. However, I am prepared for that and when looking at the big picture, I accept this minor inconvenience.

I also discovered that the method of reaching the scene of the emergency has changed drastically in 50 years. I remember watching the fire trucks of my youth leaving town with a snort and a billow of smoke exhaust, with a driver, another person sitting in the passenger seat, and the remainder of the volunteers clinging to the bars that ran the length of each side of the fire engine. The fire trucks of five decades ago usually transported up to 15 firefighters at one time.

Time and safety issues have changed all that. The truck I rode on at our last meeting that transported us to the community park so we could practice using the hoses and learning about the pumps can legally carry only four of us at a time, and all four of us must be seated and belted in. What a change from the fire trucks from my younger years.

I also discover to my chagrin that my place of work does not allow paid time off for firefighting. When I attend fires or other emergencies in the future, I will have to take vacation time if I wish to be paid for those service hours. However, I will do that; this volunteer work means more to me than my current job at a place of work that does not appreciate the value its volunteer firefighters provide. Does this place of business realize that 82.4% of the firefighters in Montana are volunteers? In other words, our communities must protect themselves through volunteer effort, and these communities and volunteers need all the assistance they can get.

I haven't been with the fire department long enough to relate any interesting, amusing, unusual, or extraordinary stories that volunteer firefighting may provide, but I feel confident that time will come. What I do know is that I have been and continue to be impressed with the dedication these volunteers display when faced with emergencies of all sorts; their desire to give of their time, and their unhesitating willingness to put themselves into harm's way in order to assist individuals and the community.

I look forward to the opportunity to serve with this band of dedicated volunteers and to assist in efforts to protect our community and its individual community members whenever required.


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