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Volunteer Firefighters: Facing The Flames And The Mundane


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Neal Conan is away. When the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas, exploded last week, many of the first responders on the scene were volunteer firefighters, and they make up most of the 14 known victims so far.

The tragedy brings new focus to this unsung force. The National Volunteer Fire Council estimates nearly 70 percent of the nation's fire service are volunteers, juggling day jobs and family with high risk and often limited resources. Volunteer firefighters, we want to hear your stories about the work you do. Tell us about the call you'll never forget. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we remember the man who wowed Woodstock, Richie Havens. But first volunteer firefights. They respond to a wide range of emergencies, and every so often they get that big call. Larry Pander is a volunteer firefighter in Holcomb, Kansas. He was serving in nearby Garden City in May of 2007 when he got the call from Greensburg.

An EF5 tornado had destroyed most of the town. They desperately needed help. Larry joins us now from High Plains Public Radio in Garden City. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

LARRY PANDER: Hi, how are you doing, Jennifer?

LUDDEN: Good. Can you take us back? Think to that night when you were on the scene there within an hour. What do you remember about arriving in Greensburg?

PANDER: Well, the thing that stands out the most is the smell when we arrived. It smelled like a lumberyard because the trees had all been all tore up. After being - coming up here from Houston, living in Galveston County for 30 years, I've been through a lot of hurricanes, but I had never seen anything like Greensburg.

LUDDEN: So was this part of your training?

PANDER: It's pretty hard to train for a situation like that. It's - it's something that you'll never forget, that's for sure.

LUDDEN: And tell us a little bit about the work that you then did.

PANDER: We actually, once we got organized, there was a lot of departments that responded from all over Kansas. Once it was organized, we started going from house to house, search, handling patients out in the streets. Remember it was about 1 o'clock in the morning. So it was pitch black. Nobody pretty much knew where they were going. I had never been to Greensburg. I had just moved to Garden City.

LUDDEN: And the - did you say the bulk of the responders were volunteers? Do you know?

PANDER: Probably I would say the bulk of the responders - Greensburg had lost their fire department and their fire station from the tornado, and so they were unable to respond. We sent up six firefighters from Garden City with a heavy rescue truck. Wichita responded. Really I can't remember all the departments.

We were there for probably 48 hours, and then we got a relief crew in, but it was pretty much house-to-house search. There was some issues with the old folks' home there. It got hit pretty hard. And so the hospital there, we had to evacuate. It was just pretty chaotic.

Again it's really hard to kind of explain it. Things were happening pretty fast, and the main problem that happens on any major incident like that would be organization.

LUDDEN: Who's in charge, who delegates, who does what?

PANDER: Right. There always has to be what we call an incident commander. And there was a little bit of issues with that at the first I'd say five or six hours of the incident.

LUDDEN: So natural disasters obviously are part of what you do as a volunteer firefighter. Tell us what other kinds of emergencies you're likely to encounter in rural Kansas.

PANDER: Well, there is a lot of anhydrous ammonia out here.

LUDDEN: I'm thinking agriculture.

PANDER: Agriculture, grain silo rescues, high angle rescues, a lot of auto extrication out here due to the roads out here in rural America.

LUDDEN: What do you mean, a lot of accidents?

PANDER: A lot of accidents, especially on 83 - I'm sure you all don't know the roads out here, but they're just - all the roads out here are just two-lane roads, and so there is a lot of accidents, wildlife on the roads. Rural America is rural America.

LUDDEN: Now what are the special challenges, then, that you face as a volunteer force in a more isolated place like that, not unlike West Texas, really?

PANDER: Oh true. Resources would probably be the biggest, funding and training. And, you know, you really can't run a department without your equipment, and any time you stamp the word fire on a piece of equipment, it triples in price, so, you know, it's really hard for a lot of these small departments to get the equipment, the proper equipment, the proper training, funding to run.

LUDDEN: Right. Let's bring a caller into the line. We have Mark(ph) who is in Oakland, California. Welcome to the program, Mark.

MARK: Thank you.

LUDDEN: What's your - what's the thing that's - the call that you'll never forget?

MARK: Well, I was a volunteer firefighter in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, for 10 years. This is a small town. We had a, you know, we heard the alarm, it goes out probably within two minutes. It was just, you know, luck that one of our officers was driving past that scene, immediately called in I remember a second and third alarm.

A small town, daytime, those second and third alarms are mutually towns, you know, the towns around us. Turns out this was a factory that was doing some government work, and it was magnesium pieces. Magnesium is one of these metals where, I mean, if it's burning, it burns so hot that it'll actually separate the water to oxygen and hydrogen.

LUDDEN: Oh my word.

MARK: Unless you're putting a lot of water on it, a little water actually feeds the fire. Ended up being I believe 10 towns we had, you know, next to the railroad tracks. We stopped Amtrak. We evacuated people. It was, you know, a lot of recovery for, you know, physical recovery for the firefighters, probably about a 12-hour ordeal. It was - I mean this is a fire that was burning so hot it was just melting cement cinderblock.

LUDDEN: And was it largely volunteers who were in charge of putting it out?

PANDER: All volunteer.

LUDDEN: Interesting. All right, Mark, thank you...

PANDER: They're all volunteers in the towns.

LUDDEN: And Mark, what drove you to be a volunteer firefighter?

PANDER: Mostly I had friends that were in the area. I saw - you know, like a lot of people, I wanted to give back to the community. But if, you know, when I interviewed new people that wanted to be volunteers, if that's the only thing they were saying, we're like mm-hmm. If - while you want to give back, there's a lot of training, there's a lot of camaraderie. There's also a lot of (technical difficulty).

LUDDEN: All right, thank you so much for the call, Mark.

MARK: Thanks.

LUDDEN: Let's bring in Chief Jack Carriger. He heads the Stayton, Oregon, Fire District, which is a combination department staffed partially by paid responders, mostly, though, by volunteers. Before becoming chief, Carriger volunteered for 10 years. He's also vice chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council, and he joins us now by phone from his office in Stayton. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JACK CARRIGER: Good afternoon, Jennifer. Thank you for having me.

LUDDEN: I want to get to some of your experiences, as well, but can you first just put this all in context? How many of the nation's firefighters are volunteer, and who are they?

CARRIGER: Well, it's hard to have exact numbers, but there's approximately 1.1 million firefighters in the United States, and somewhere over 800,000 of those are volunteer.

LUDDEN: The large majority.

CARRIGER: So - yes, definitely, the large majority of firefighters in this country are volunteer.

LUDDEN: And this is only rural places, or does this happen in cities, as well?

CARRIGER: No, it happens in cities, as well, and in fact only the very, very large cities for the most part are completely career departments, paid career departments. Most suburban and urban departments out including rural and what - there's even a lesser developed title called frontier, which is the people that are way out in the rural, they're all staffed either in a combination or fully volunteered situation.

LUDDEN: And do you happen to know, is this something that's developed over time, or does this stem back from the way things used to be and still are?

CARRIGER: Well both. The history of the fire service is it started as a volunteer entity, and then somewhere when community demanded it by its needs, a paid department started. And I think that was - it might even have been in Philadelphia, I think, was the first paid fire department.

But it's usually driven by the needs of the community and what the community is willing to pay for. And most of the time - and in fact I would say all of the time, really the most cost-effective emergency services are delivered through a combination system or an all-volunteer system, just dependent upon the situation at hand in that community.

LUDDEN: But they still must be funded somehow, right? Are their trucks and equipment? Is this tax dollars we're talking about for volunteer fire groups?

CARRIGER: It really covers a wide range of funding devices. There are many small departments that have no funding whatsoever, that everything that they do they have to raise on their own, and pancake breakfasts, car washes, raffles, and, you know, there's maybe some community organizations that donate to the service.

And then it goes all the way to the other end, which is our fully funded departments through either state taxes, community or local property taxes, those types of funding.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, stay with us. So we're going to speak more with Chief Jack Carriger in Oregon and Larry Pander, a volunteer firefighter in Holcomb, Kansas. Volunteer firefighters, tell us what is the call you will never forget, 800-989-8255. Stay with us. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. There's still so much we don't know about what caused the fire and explosion last week at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, though a variety of obituaries and news reports, however, we are learning more about the victims, many of them volunteer firefighters themselves.

Before the fire, 41-year-old volunteer fireman Morris Bridges reportedly picked up his two-year-old son, said daddy loves you and kissed him goodbye. Perry Calvin, who remodeled homes, dabbled in raising cattle and was a father of two, raced out of a volunteer firefighter training seminar to fight the fire in West.

Jerry Chapman was with Calvin and only a week away from completing EMT training. Both died in the blast. Cody Dragoo was a team leader for the volunteer firefighters in West and also worked at the plant mixing chemicals to make fertilizer. Dallas Fire Captain Kenny Harris was off the clock when he went to West to fight the fire. He went by his middle name, Lucky.

Adolph Lander was a 86-year-old World War II veteran and was well-known for making the best dill pickles around. He died during the evacuation of the nursing home where he lived. Jimmy Mattis was West's resident Santa Claus, dressing up every Christmas for the kids in his hometown. Joey Pustejovsky was city clerk in West and a driving force in civic projects in the area.

Twenty-nine-year-old Cyrus Reed drove a big, red pickup. Friends say he had a big personality and a soft heart. Mariano Saldivar lived in a nearby apartment. He retired from warehouse work in California four years ago to be closer to his family in Texas.

Kevin Sanders was a high school drum major and taught veterinary tech classes. Doug and Robert Snokhous could always be seen together, whether they were hunting, working on cars, golfing or cooking barbecue at the volunteer fire department's cook-off. William Buck Uptmor was a former rodeo bull rider and started his own fencing company as a teenager.

On Thursday the town of West will hold a memorial service for the victims. President Obama is expected to attend. Today our focus is on the work, often dangerous work done by volunteer firefighters in this country, a group that represents more than two-thirds of all U.S. firefighters.

Our guests are Larry Pander, a volunteer firefighter with the Holcomb Fire Department in Holcomb, Kansas. He also teaches fire science at Garden City Community College. Also with us, Fire Chief Jack Carriger with the Stayton, Oregon, Fire District. He serves as vice chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council.

And volunteer firefighters, we want to hear your stories about the work you do. Tell us about the call you'll never forget. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address, talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's go straight to the phones with another caller, Richard(ph) in Austin, Texas. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Richard.

RICHARD: Hey, how are you doing there?

LUDDEN: Good. Tell us your story.

RICHARD: Oh, let me see. It took place in about 1996, so I was about 23 years old. I was volunteering with the EMS and the fire department down in Rockport, Texas. And we had an 18-wheeler roll through the middle of town where it wasn't supposed to be. It ran through a red light and backed into about 10 cars.

From there we probably had a mass casualty of about 30 people there, and we ended up calling it Miracle Monday because amazingly, through all the carnage and all the wreckage and all the people that were involved, no one died at all.

LUDDEN: Amazing, and how - I mean, did you - this is just different from what you do or just a larger emergency? Had you had much experience in that at the time?

RICHARD: At the time I hadn't because I'd been volunteering probably about three years, and we had never really had anything that large. We had practice on it every year, you know, you run drills, and you're running all these mass casualties with these different services around the area.

You never really - it never really prepares you for what actually occurs, the emotions that you go through, and every single emotion when you're going through the middle of it runs high, it runs low. You have people running around frantic. You have some people freezing. And then you have some people who really rise to the occasion and really show what they're made of. And those are the people who end up emulating yourself after later on and really looking up to. And how do you deal with the emotion, Richard?

They offer tons of services afterwards, well not tons but I would say probably quite a few. They offer group counseling. They offer the ability to share stories with one another, be able to talk to people who have gone through the same types of scenarios that you've been through.

Unfortunately there are some, there are some cases where firefighters and EMS workers are known to be pretty hardcore, and they don't feel like they need to talk, and in the end that's what really, really affects them when they're not able to express their feelings or discuss what type of emotions are going through, but...

LUDDEN: All right, Richard, thank you so much for the call.

RICHARD: Thank you, thank you.

LUDDEN: Larry Pander with Holcomb - the Holcomb Fire Department in Kansas, you train other volunteer departments. Is this part of what you help them with, coping?

PANDER: Yes, I'd say so. It's - the big picture is we actually do training for all departments, paid and volunteer, in the state of Kansas. And what we teach or try to teach or instill in them is critical instance stress management, and that's getting to be pretty popular or more recognized these days than what it used to be.

He's right that a lot of the older firefighters were pretty hardcore.

LUDDEN: Keep it in, don't show emotion?

PANDER: Oh yeah, after 20-some years in Houston, I can pretty much verify that. So they're - it's a kinder and gentler world these days. So there's a lot of help out there for firefighters that do need it, and I would encourage all of them to go for it.

LUDDEN: And what other training requirements are there? What do you need to do this?

PANDER: Oh, there's a long - a big range of training. It ranges from how to get water from point A to point B, the chemistry of fire, operating equipment, fire ground safety, operating in hazardous atmospheres, operating where - in thick smoke, when to go in, when not to go in. It - a typical class for just a basic firefighter runs anywhere from 120 to 200 hours, and that's for anybody, paid or volunteer.

LUDDEN: All right, let's get another caller on the line. Jessica(ph) is in Wichita, Kansas. Hi there, Jessica.

JESSICA: Hi, I was just calling to share a really powerful moment from my childhood. I grew up in one of those - I guess they're classified as frontier, like one of your guests mentioned. It was a town of 2,000 people. And when I was young, I went to a school play. They whole community shows up for these things. And all of a sudden in the middle of it, you hear several pagers going off and kind of look around and see these big men from the middle of the community, neighbors and people you know, like a dozen of them, all standing up at once and leaving.

And I knew we had a volunteer fire department before then, but it wasn't until then, when I saw those father that I knew, stand up and all leave at the same time to respond to a fire that I realized, like, you know, this is an emergency, and these men are going to possibly save lives. I don't remember what the call was about, or what the fire was, but that really impacted me, the first view of hometown heroes as the people that I knew.

LUDDEN: Oh, that's very sweet, and they were leaving their children onstage.

JESSICA: Yes, yes, and their wives in the seats and just going to respond to the call. Yeah, it's such a close-to-home impact, you know, when it's volunteers. So anyway, that's my comment.

LUDDEN: Thank you so much, Jessica. And Robert(ph) is in Middlebury. Hi Robert, can you hear us?

ROBERT: Yes, I sure can. Thanks for taking my call.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

ROBERT: Yes, well I can really relate to the gentleman there from Kansas with all the - with what he has shared so far. The training, we are - I'm on a combination department, but I am on the volunteer side. But, you know, I have to - I have to be certified to hazmat operations level, to EMT basic life support level and fire one and two, which is hundreds and hundreds of hours of training and then continuing ed after that to keep yourself certified and up to date.

LUDDEN: And what's the call that you will never forget, Robert?

ROBERT: Sure, OK, the worst calls, of course, are, you know, neighbors, people that you know. And that's one thing, anyone considering, you know, joining up with a volunteer department certainly needs to take into account that inevitably you're going to, you know, respond to a call, a critical call, and it's going to be somebody you know. It's going to be a neighbor.

And that happened a number of times, actually, for me. But the one call was two young Amish kids that were - they passed away due to a car versus their horse cart. And then their three other siblings that were also on the cart were critically injured. We had, you know, we had to fly them out. So we had a lot of - we had a lot of response, personnel that responded and, you know, trying to coordinate landing zones and just, you know, patient care, but then just the aftermath of that, just, you know, seeing the parents around.

And the parents actually had us over a year later for just a cookout, just to thank us, and, you know, it strikes to your heart because these are people that you work with. And then we, in turn, go to our day jobs and just have this, you know, this emotional stuff, baggage that we just need to deal with. And our department's pretty good about it. And I certainly - I make a point to, you know, deal with it and not bottle it up, because there are certainly guys that do that, and I just know that it comes back to get them in different ways, and I don't - yeah.

LUDDEN: Thank you so much, Robert, for sharing that. Let's get...


LUDDEN: Let's get some more stories in here. We have Ty(ph) in Northwest Arkansas. or is that Alaska?

TY: That's Arkansas.


TY: Hello.


TY: Thank you for taking my call. I would like to echo what everybody else has said. It is small communities, and it is your neighbors, and that's the tough part. But the call I will always remember is my daughter, at a very young age - well, in her 20s - is a combat medic in the Army. And she was home on leave, and I got a call to a gunshot wound, to an attempted suicide. And she flew into the truck to go with me because she is qualified to deal with those things.

And we were the first ones on scene. And I was a little spooked about how she was going to handle this, because it's graphic. And she didn't flinch. She was able to maintain the airway on our patient. She stayed with it the entire time, even when other people came. And she's a tiny little puff of smoke, and she didn't flinch, not once. She stayed on a bag valve mask, and she kept air to the patient for a considerable amount of time while we got a helicopter in and landed.

And that was just a real proud moment for me to watch my daughter, who, you know, is sometimes squeamish and everything, but when it came down to going to work, she went to work and she did the job, and she did it better than men that I have watched do this that have done it for 20 years. And on the spot, she succeeded at an amazing level.

LUDDEN: You must be very proud. Ty, thank you so much for sharing that. And one more - Morgan, in Syracuse, New York. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Morgan.

MORGAN: Hi. Yes. I just wanted to thank all of the volunteers that you've had on the air and all of those out there listening. But I also want to make mention of the fact that when that alarm goes off, or when that pager goes off and those men go out the door, that there are families left at home who just sit and wait. And as the wife of a volunteer firefighter, it's just something that you just have to learn to accept and deal with. And at first, it's very difficult, but I don't want to say that you get used to it, but it's less alarming every time they head out the door.

LUDDEN: Thank you so much, Morgan.

MORGAN: Thank you.

LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Jack Carriger, we've heard from so many people. Give us a snapshot. Who are these volunteers? Is it all men?

CARRIGER: Oh, absolutely not. Volunteers come from just about every walk of life there is. They do have a tendency to be, for the large majority, blue-collar workers. And a lot of times what they find - as was mentioned earlier - looking to give back to the community. They're also looking to be a part of something a little bit bigger than themselves, and maybe doing something a little bit more than what they do that puts food on the table and pays the bills.

They want to have that self-satisfaction that they get from helping their neighbors, from helping the people that pass through their communities and for giving at just a little bit higher level. There has to be a great deal of pride and ownership because of the sacrifices that they make to be there, like was mentioned earlier, where they get up and leave the place. They get up and leave Christmas morning, birthdays.

All types of family events are interrupted when the tones go off. And so that sacrifice has to come from deep within those people, or they just won't do it. And anybody can do it, but not everybody can do it. It takes a huge commitment on the individual and the family. And that's why the most successful departments are those departments that truly encompass and involve the family in all aspects of the department.

LUDDEN: And as a reminder of just how dangerous this volunteer work is, we have an email from Kim in Reno: The most memorable was September 17th, 1983, when I was severely burned while fighting a wildland fire, given less than a 5 percent chance to live. I am still alive and kicking and participating.

Let's squeeze in one more call here - Vince in Flagstaff, Arizona. Welcome to the program.

VINCE: Thank you for having my call. Volunteer firefighter, EMT. There isn't a volunteer who doesn't go through the exact same training as any paid firefighter. So the giving is immense. It is about the community, but it takes a special person to be able to deal with that.

The worst call would be my partner, we're the two biggest ones, so we were paired together. And we get this smell up here, and we get suicides. The gentleman's brother was - had done himself in in the bathroom with his belt, and my friend was big enough to lift him off. And, anyway, I started compressions, over a hundred beats per minute. That was done for the family. We knew he was gone, but there's so many things that we do do that people don't know about, and we don't expect a thank-you (unintelligible).

LUDDEN: And Vince, I think we hear the emotion there in your voice. Thank you so much for calling to share that. Last - I think, gentlemen, we're going to - last quick question, Jack Carriger: Has the economy impacted funding for these volunteer forces, or are you needing new recruits? Where does it stand?

CARRIGER: Absolutely. With the economy, the funding has been impacted on all levels, and it's put even a larger burden on the firefighters themselves to try and raise money and to do even more than what they would normally do, which takes more time - more time away from their family. And then one thing...

LUDDEN: I think we're going to have to leave it there. I'm so sorry, but this was an interesting, compelling hour, and we thank everyone who called to share their stories. Chief Jack Carriger heads the Stayton, Oregon Fire Department, staffed partially by paid responders, but mostly volunteers. He's with the National Volunteer Fire Council. Larry Pander was also with us, a volunteer firefighter in Holcomb, Kansas. Coming up, we remember folk singer Richie Havens and listen back to a conversation he had on this program nearly a decade ago. Stay with us. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.