By MARTY CLARK
Special to the Sounder
The Lopez Fire and EMS Department, which is staffed almost entirely by a hardworking crew of volunteers, is in need of firefighters.
The Department invites anyone who is interested to meet current firefighters, ask questions, look at equipment, and find out more about the upcoming recruit class. If you have been thinking about joining, or are just curious, come check us out on Saturday, April 12, at the main station across from the Lopez Library at 9 a.m. We will have coffee and pastries and a video about firefighting.
When asked why they volunteer, most of the Lopez Fire Department members, whether firefighters or EMTs, talk about service to their community, helping others, and finding a group of good people to hang out with. What is more challenging to articulate is that helping others feels good. Knowing you have helped a neighbor or a stranger makes it a better day.
Jackson Bailey, 27, joined the department as a 22-year-old. He was looking for a challenge, a way to contribute to his community, and fun. He has found all three in his time as a firefighter/EMT. He describes his experience as “totally awesome.” Bailey hopes to make firefighting his career, and to that end achieved his Firefighter I certificate from the Washington State Firefighting Academy in North Bend. Bailey, along with fire Lieutenant Larry Harris, was voted 2007 Firefighter of the Year by his peers.
Before joining, Bailey was concerned the time commitment could interfere with his job. He found that while 75 percent attendance at training is a must, the department staff understands volunteers’ work and family obligations. Flexibility is key.
The first fire Bailey fought was “definitely a rush.” He was amazed at how quickly the department’s brand new compressed air foam pumper tender put out a house fire, which had started in a wood stove, burned into the living room and bedroom and through the roof. The fire went from fully involved to knocked down in minutes. Of course, then there were the hours of mopping up and cleaning hose. As Bailey says: “We got something done and we did it right.”
Monte Midkiff, 65, joined the department in 2000 after seeing an ad about the lone southend firefighter asking for help. Midkiff has always been someone who will stop and help people, but looked forward to doing so in a more organized way. He wanted training in taking care of others in emergencies, with a team to back him up. He got that, and also found a family of friends.
Like most community members considering volunteering, Midkiff had concerns about the physical challenges. At 57, he had no interest in a career, and just wanted to be a cog in a wheel: fill a role and then go home. He overcame his initial concerns about the work involved, and feels the mental and physical activities keep him from getting old. He too went on to become an EMT, and is now Lieutenant 42 in charge of the south end station. His pride in his station shows in the spick-and-span equipment, cohesive members, and the daffodils out front.
When asked what keeps him going, he replied, “You don’t become a firefighter and then hang up your gear. It’s a beginning that requires continuous training and reinforcement. The training comes back to benefit you as a team member, taking care of others and your teammates. The responsibility is a daily presence, an awareness that at any moment you can be off putting out a fire or saving a life.”
Tracie Red Elk, who is 51, joined the department seven years ago after talking with then Fire Commissioner Dave Anderson. She asked about the student firefighter program, thinking it would be great for her teenage son Wes. Anderson encouraged Wes’s participation, and suggested Red Elk join as well. She and Wes took a recruit class together, and were a firefighting team for two years, until Wes graduated and left for the Coast Guard Academy.
Red Elk wants other women to know there is a place for them in the fire department. It is physically and emotionally challenging for any one, but most people are up to the tasks. She initially worried about the challenges but found she was quite capable, and even more motivated to keep in shape.
For all of our firefighters and EMTs, the chance to help others figures high on their list of reasons for joining and staying with firefighting. While it sounds altruistic, the bottom line is it just plain feels good.
Marty Clark is a Lopez Fire Department paramedic.