If you’ve ever considered volunteering at your local fire department and currently live in or near Shenandoah, the Shenandoah Fire Department would like to talk to you.
On Saturday, June 3, from noon to 3 p.m., the Shenandoah firefighters will hold an open house at the Shenandoah Fire Station, 400 W. Sheridan Ave. During the open house, firefighters will be available to visit with anyone interested in joining the department to answer questions. They will also display their fire gear and explain what the different equipment on the trucks are used for at a fire, car wreck or other emergency situation.
Volunteer firefighters are not only called to help at the scene of a fire but also to assist at car accidents, during severe weather and hazmat calls where there is a gas or anhydrous leak. They are also called on to assist Emergency Medical Services. The department also has specialized equipment for basic water and grain bin rescues.
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If you are passionate about helping out your community, becoming a volunteer firefighter may be your calling.
Assistant Fire Chief Ken Swank said individuals go through a six-month probation period before being voted on the department to ensure it is a good fit for both sides. During the probationary period, a person interested in being a volunteer firefighter would be paired with a mentor who would show them the ropes, familiarize them with the tools on the trucks and assist them at the fire scene. Those individuals are also encouraged to stop down at the fire station and work with the drivers on duty.
After the probationary period, if a person is voted onto the department, Swank said that person would need to take the Firefighter One training at some point, but it does not have to be completed immediately. He said the course is required before a firefighter can enter a burning structure.
Until a firefighter completes the Firefighter One course, Swank and firefighter Tom Holben said there are plenty of jobs for everyone to do at the scene besides going inside the structure. He said the firefighters could run the dump tank, hook up hoses to hydrants, run the hoses and obtain tools from the truck.
The same thing applies at the scene of an accident. Swank said if someone is uncomfortable with the sight of blood, for example, those individuals can assist with traffic control.
“One thing, we’re not ever going to put anybody into a dangerous situation where they’re not comfortable,” said firefighter Todd Maher.
In retrospect, firefighters need to know when to speak up if uncomfortable with a situation so they don’t get hurt. Swank said firefighters also have opportunities to gain additional specialty training while on the department.
Members of the Shenandoah Fire Department say “life happens” and urge those interested in joining the department but have concerns about their work or home schedule to talk to them. He said the department would like an extensive roster because everyone has jobs and a family and is not expected to make it to every fire call.
“You want to have a good strong roster so that you have good show up,” Holben said.
Currently, there are 26 members, including three full-time drivers and the fire chief. Holben said the odds of all 26 members being free simultaneously to show up to a call is unlikely. So having a solid roster ensures sufficient coverage at a fire or other emergency scenes.
Firefighter and paramedic Mike Kirsch said it is getting harder and harder for departments to find volunteers. Swank and Kirsch noted when looking for volunteers; the individual need to be in decent physical shape as it is a demanding job, be willing to learn and want to serve their community
Swank said the Shenandoah Fire Department covers about 170 square miles of fire district and averages 160 calls annually. He said in addition to Shenandoah, the department automatically gets paged when the Coin and Farragut fire departments receive a call.
Swank has been a firefighter for nearly 28 years and has been on the Shenandoah Fire Department for 23 years. He said giving back to the community is important to him, and the bond and camaraderie the members form in the department are priceless.
“We’re a close-knit group,” Swank said. “We work good together and we’re there to support each other.”
Holben has been on the department for the past 18 years and said the firefighters look out for one another on a scene and in daily life.
Todd Maher has been a volunteer firefighter for the Shenandoah Department for almost 20 years and said being able to help people is why he signed up.
“I’ve met a ton of people through this job and learned a lot of skills,” Maher said. “It’s just been a good rewarding way to serve the community.”
Maher referred to the friendships made within the department as similar to being a family.
Starting his career as a firefighter in 1993 with the Clarinda Fire Department, Kirsch said he had been a member of the Shenandoah Fire Department since 2007. He said, “The best feeling in the world” is having someone you helped say thank you.
When dispatch pages out a call to the Shenandoah Fire Department, Swank said if the fire is in town, the first truck will roll out, and the other firefighters meet the truck at the scene and gear up. He said the first officer on the scene would size up the situation and implement a plan. The first priority is the safety of the firefighters and the safety of the homeowners, so the first thing that happens is for the firefighters to ensure that everyone in the home gets out safely.
The department has an accountability process in place to keep the firefighters safe. As a firefighter arrives on the scene, they give a tag with their identification to the instant commander. When leaving the scene, the firefighter must retrieve his identification tag. This process enables the instant commander to keep track of the firefighters and ensure their safety. If a tag is not picked up, the instant commander knows a firefighter may be introuble.
The mental health safety of each firefighter is also a top priority in the department.
“One thing that we’ll always say, mental health is nothing to be ashamed of,” Kirsch said. “You got to take care of your mental health if you’re going to be successful in this job.”
Debriefings are held at the station for firefighters after a stressful call to give the firefighters a chance to talk about what happened at the scene. If the situation warrants it, Swank said professionals are available to the department to help with debriefings. He said if you’re on the department long enough, there will always be that one call “that will stick in the back of your mind.”
During the open house, the Shenandoah Fire Department also welcomes Shenandoah High School students and their parents interested in the Cadet Program. Holben, the cadet program coordinator, said the program’s focus is to give students an idea of what it’s like to be a first responder, whether as a firefighter, EMS or police officer. He hopes the program will “put a love for it into them” and, as an adult, will serve their community as a first responder in some capacity.
He said several former cadets who have gone through the program in Shenanodah have returned as volunteer firefighters. Others have gone on to be paramedics and firefighters in other communities.
Holben said the cadets meet one evening a week and can assist on the scene of a fire. At a fire scene, he said cadets are not allowed to enter a structure of any type but can assist with hoses and tools outside the structure. Holben said while cadets are not permitted to help at the scene of a wreck, they can go to the fire station and assist with getting the gear and trucks ready for the next call when they return to the station.
“There’s a lot they can do to help us without being put in harm’s way,” Holben said.
Holben said students must be 16 and attend the Shenandoah Community School District to join the cadet program. He said students can continue in the program until they graduate high school. He said students must be able to commit at least one year to the program for it to be beneficial to them.
“The two jobs of the fire department is to protect life and property,” Holben said.
Holben said the cadets could aid the department in these two areas by keeping water on nearby homes to cool the siding and learning to set up the aerial truck while firefighters gear up. He said they could also be a second set of eyes when firefighters gear up to ensure gear safety.
Holben said safety is the first thing covered in the cadet program, starting with correctly putting the firefighter gear on and taking it off until it becomes “second nature.” Then they move on to the trucks and learn about all the equipment on each of those, how it is used and what it is used for.
Swank said anyone interested in giving back to the community by becoming a volunteer firefighter or joining the cadet program would find the open house beneficial and hopes to see you there.