lending a hand | firefighters

So, you want to be a firefighter?

Volunteer firefighters fill community need

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Are you thinking about volunteering to be a firefighter?

Volunteer firefighters may have joined their local department for a variety of reasons, but they are all likely to agree on one thing: being a part of these critical teams is an exciting and rewarding opportunity to serve.

In Kingsbury County, there are six fire departments utilizing volunteers to fill the ranks from recruit to chief. The state of South Dakota, which can help with training costs of new recruits, would like 30 volunteers in each department. While 30 may sound like a high number, commitments such as employment, family time, travel, and sickness can limit a volunteer’s availability. Responses during the evenings may yield a high number of volunteers, but during the traditional workday, it may be tough to get the needed personnel.

In Kingsbury County, five fire departments including Lake Preston, Iroquois, Badger, Oldham and Arlington currently need volunteers. De Smet has a full roster at 30 volunteers, but each year firefighters retire or move away, so the need for volunteers is almost constant.

Who can become a volunteer firefighter?

The state and each department have their own requirements for potential volunteers. Most require volunteers to be 18 years old, though some may require volunteers to be 21. Some departments may require residence in their response district or a set amount of time to respond to the station. Local departments vary in restrictions and requirements.

What does a volunteer firefighter do?

Being a part of a fire department takes commitment and hard work. Initially, the volunteer will attend the department’s meetings and training, help on calls, and complete two state-required certifications—Firefighter I and Firefighter II—to receive state certification. Once certified, the firefighter will be allowed to do more.

Volunteers will respond to fires, whether they are a structure, vehicle, wildland or even trash fire. Firefighters also respond to vehicular accidents of all types.

Some fire departments work alongside the emergency medical team, making medical calls with them. Volunteers might perform rescues, whether on a farm, in a house or on a lake. Other times department members are asked to stand by when a potentially threatening situation, perhaps law enforcement or hazardous material-related, may be occurring. Most fire departments are considered “Jack of all trades,” so if the dispatchers decide it is not a law enforcement or a medical call, they call the fire department.

What training is recommended or required?

There is usually quite a bit of training on any fire department. A new recruit has classes to pass, some online, some in-person, and certain skills must be achieved by each trainee.

One of De Smet’s newest volunteers, Lane “Bubba” Hildebrandt, sums it up this way, “You have to pass two courses, Firefighter I and Firefighter II. It was about twenty-five days of training. Some days are three hours. Some days are eight hours. A few of those 8-hour days have a written test that you must pass. Then there are practical skills, too, where you perform skills like climbing ladders, carrying ladders, laying lines and pulling hoses, tying knots, putting your gear on and in an air pack in a certain amount of time. Definitely some training, and then we train every month, too.”

Why would I want to be a volunteer firefighter?

Most firefighters can give you a handful of reasons of why they volunteered.

“I have always wanted to help when I can,” said Hildebrandt. “The company that I work for is supportive of you volunteering your time. My boss and other coworkers are volunteer firemen. They are all very supportive and nudged me into it. It’s been a good experience.”

Most firefighters feel it is a way of giving back to the community.

Firefighting is a way to help those who may be having the worst day of their lives. They need help and a volunteer is there to give it. A firefighter cannot undo what has already been done but can do what is needed quickly and professionally. The psychological aspect of firefighting can be extremely rewarding or taxing.

Being part of a team

The fire department uses teamwork. Rarely is anyone assigned a task alone because teamwork is most effective on the fireground or on any call. Teamwork helps build better individuals, leading to benefits in other areas of life.

“The brotherhood that you have with other firefighters, and then the feeling of helping people is all that I know right now, and it is a good thing. I really enjoy it,” said Hildebrandt.

There is a camaraderie between firefighters. They need to rely on each other. If a firefighter collapses in a burning structure, the partner needs to be able to drag the collapsed individual out to safety. Training and working together tells you if a recruit can cut it. If you are a hard worker, can listen and be open to suggestions and are eager to try new things, success can be yours.

Physical well-being

Firefighters are encouraged to be physically fit. The better shape physically, the less demanding their job of firefighting will be. Work smarter and not harder is a good goal for any department.

Tough aspects of the job

One of the tough aspects of being a volunteer firefighter is the training. At first, there are lots of classes and training, and that means hours in class, online or performing skill tests. Sometimes, the classes may not be local, and travel is involved. Think of training like sharpening a knife. The sharper the edge, the more efficient the knife is. Each training is sharpening the knife, so when called, the team is as efficient at the skills as needed.

Some spouses may have a hard time coping with the tasks required of the fire department. It’s not like volunteering in a museum where risks are small. Volunteer firefighters work in the middle of emergency situations. Some spouses may always think about worst-case scenarios and have a hard time handling the stress. Conversation with one’s spouse is vital before deciding to volunteer as a firefighter. Both need to be on the same page, be open and communicate.

Being a volunteer firefighter is hard physically, but it can be hard mentally, too. A firefighter is called to respond when things go badly. There is no control of what has already happened; all there is to do is try and make the situation better. If a fire is already blowing out of every window of a house, there is no firefighter skill that is going to turn that house into a survivable structure to rescue anyone. The same is true of car accidents and other threatening situations.

To make matters worse, volunteering in small towns, chances are someone on the fire department knows one of the victims, whether it is a neighbor, family or friends. That is a hard pill to swallow. Having a support network in place can help situations like these.

Local needs

Below is a list of the local fire departments in Kingsbury County, the fire chief, meeting times and needs they have. If you are interested in becoming a local volunteer firefighter, contact the chief or another volunteer or show up at a meeting. They will be glad to get you started.

Remember, if you volunteer, that department is making an investment in you as a firefighter. They help with training, books, full turnout gear and self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBAs). The costs for a first-year firefighter can average $10,000 or more, and each department is paying the bill. If they are willing to support you in your endeavor, remember to return the favor and support your department and members, too.

Arlington Fire Department: The Fire Chief is Eric Erstad, and they meet at the fire station on the first Wednesday of the month at 6:30 p.m. They currently need volunteers and will gladly take donations for radios and turnout gear.

Badger Fire Department: The Fire Chief is Jared Erstad, and they meet at the fire station on the first Tuesday of the month at 7 p.m. They currently need volunteers and will gladly take donations for a new grass truck and turnout gear.

De Smet Fire Department: The Fire Chief is Shawn Wolkow, and they meet at the fire station on the second Monday of the month at 6:30 p.m. They currently have 30 volunteers but will gladly take donations for a new grass truck.

Iroquois Fire Department: The Fire Chief is Byron Adkins, and they meet at the fire station on the third Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. They currently need volunteers and will gladly take donations for SCBAs, trucks and turnout gear.

Lake Preston Fire Department: The Fire Chief is Josh Buer, and they meet at the fire station on the first and third Thursdays of the month at 7 p.m. They currently need volunteers and will gladly take donations for their new engine and have a fundraiser called “Chase the Ace.”

Oldham Fire Department: The Fire Chief is Alan Boyd, and they meet at the fire station on the third Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. They currently need volunteers and will gladly take donations for radios and turnout gear.

Calls to the fire department can come at any time, day or night. If you own a local business, think about supporting your fire department by allowing employees to respond when at work. If you cannot allow employees who volunteer to respond, then think about backing them financially. Remember, the local volunteer fire departments are there for you.

Being a volunteer firefighter can be extremely rewarding. There are many pros and cons associated with it. Think about the risks, weigh them carefully. Firefighting is not for everyone. Discuss your thoughts on being a volunteer with your spouse. Being a firefighter is a definite win/win proposition for your community and you.

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