I don’t listen to the radio much any more, I like driving in quiet. I think that is the first sign of being an old guy, isn’t it? I drive. I think. Sometimes I think about the way things used to be.
For example, it’s summer in Utah now, cooler than most years, but still plenty hot. I drive around in my glass box on wheels, cold air pouring out of the vents, the ice in my beverage sloshing around as I navigate in the traffic. The heat coming off of the asphalt registers 104 degrees on my car’s thermometer (40 celsius)–but I’m completely isolated from it…
And I think of the people who settled this land, or their kids. Every day you have to go out into the sun, into the heat and hook the horse to whatever implement and take care of your crops… take care of your crops or die. When you get thirsty, what would you drink? What temperature would that beverage be? How would you clean the grime of the fields off of you at the end of the day? What clothes would you change into to sit down and watch… oh wait… what do you do to relax?
And what do you do if your barn starts to burn? Where do you turn to for help?
Of course in a larger city, we simply call 911 on our phone and paid firemen come to help us. But I had the chance to visit a town where there is only one paid fireman. Meet Roger, the Fire Chief of Rupert, Idaho.
Roger, and the town and surrounding areas of Rupert, depend on 24 men and women who volunteer their time to train and be available to serve as fire fighters and paramedics.
Roger’s job is to make sure these men and women are trained and prepared to confront any emergency. He rattled off a list of very technical areas of emergency response that he’s responsible for. The complexity of the fire engine he was standing in front of was amazing enough – and I told him I thought it would take me a few hours to learn one control panel alone…
His reply was something I had never thought of. He told me that it went far beyond just being ready to fight a fire, or keeping his people safe, but there was a huge financial part to consider too. If his department doesn’t maintain certain standards of training and performance then their department’s rating changes, and the city of Rupert will have to pay more in insurance premiums.
Each one of those 24 people carries a radio with them so when the call comes they drop what they are doing and respond. I spoke with a couple of these volunteers who were there.
This is Wes. He works as a manager in a sugar processing plant about 10 minutes away from the firehouse. I asked him about what his boss thinks about him having to leave his job when emergency calls come. Wes told me that his boss was pretty cool about it, but it was his co-workers that were really great. They are the ones that have to pick up the slack for him when he’s MIA working for the fire department.
As we talked I noticed a boy, probably 6 or 7 years old, looking up at him with awe and wonder in his eyes. Wes reached down and tousled the kids hair, and I thought the kid might burst from pride. I said “I think that kid might look up to you”. Wes was equally as proud, that was his son. “How cool is it for a kid to go to school and say his dad’s a fireman” I asked.
Wes thought for a moment and said “They pay the biggest price you know. My wife and kids”. I wondered if there was regret with that statement. To me there wasn’t. It was simply part of the job of serving his community.
This is Jason. He works as head of maintenance for a 10,000 cow dairy farm just north of town. The milking machines run 24/7 he said, and it’s his job to make sure they keep running.
He was a man of few words, listening to my conversation with Roger and Wes, he’d nod his approval, or mention how grateful he was for a boss that understood the need for a strong fire department in the area.
I could feel his sense of pride though. He was proud to wear the uniform, proud to be a part of serving his community.
Roger told me he didn’t think the community at large understood how much these men sacrifice for them. He said he was grateful for me taking time to understand and wished the rest of the community would do the same…
There was a spike in interest, in recruitment for volunteer fire departments right around the events of 9/11. But in the years since most of the communities in the United States had really suffered as men decided other aspects of life were more important than serving on a volunteer fire department. He shook his head and said “It’s a big hit when someone you have spent that much time and effort and money to train decides to leave the department”.
Then he motions to the the other two firefighters and says “I’m lucky. I’m really lucky. Twenty-four dedicated men make this a great department to serve with”.
I thought about how little I think about this aspect of my life. I drive past the fire stations, I feel grateful for them as I pull over in traffic to let them pass with their sirens blaring, and I just figure that some of the taxes that get deducted from my life will continue to provide for this service.
But standing there talking to these three men really made me appreciate what we have. These guys are passionate and proud of what they do, and they do it willingly. They are volunteers.
Talking to these guys made me think that this is the way it used to be – before cities get big enough to hire full time fire departments, this is the way the community protected itself. Men volunteered to help.
As I stood there talking to these great guys, I was touched by their sincerity, by their willingness to give. I was absolutely sure that the fire department is part of what gives Rupert, and other small towns like it, such a great sense of community.