FANNING THE FLAMES: Firefighting is no easy job

By Ryan Jeltema • Last Updated 4:20 pm on Monday, September 12, 2011

Firefighting’s finest hour was also its darkest hour.
The loss of 341 heroes from New York City brought a new respect and admiration for firefighters across America. The outpouring of support over the following days and years included many people visiting to their local fire station to join.
I was one of them.
I joined the Greenville Department of Public Safety (GDPS) as a paid on-call firefighter in December 2006 and served for about three and a half years.
The seeds for my service were sown many years before 2001 when my father served as a firefighter in Georgetown Township. My earliest memory is sitting on the shifter knob of a fire engine at about 3 years old watching my dad and one of his fellow firefighters — the janitor at my school — battle a fully involved garage fire.
I decided to join after living in Greenville for more than a year. I was a single guy living alone in a one-abedroom apartment in a strange town with few friends and not much to do. Firefighting seemed like a good way to help the community and make some friends along the way.
Firefighting isn’t for everyone. The first order of business is training — a lot of training, as in hundreds of volunteer hours — at the Montcalm County Fire Academy. At the time, the course was split into two parts: Firefighter I and Firefighter II. Now it’s combined.
I spent every Saturday morning and afternoon (except two around Christmas) from early December to late May at the academy learning the ins and outs of the profession.
The program is intensive, covering everything from building construction methods and the fire tetrahedron (replacement for the fire triangle) to processes for extinguishing fires and tying all kinds of convoluted knots. The class was about half classroom instruction and half practical skills development.
About halfway through the six-month course, five other GDPS recruits and I began responding to calls. My first was a fatal farming accident on Holland Lake Road just east of M-91, where a Lowell man fell into a large corn bin.
We all graduated from the academy the weekend before Memorial Day, but the education was far from over. I took classes in advanced extrication and emergency vehicle driving that summer.
Firefighter II ran for three months in the fall from the weekend after Labor Day through about Thanksgiving. This course expanded on Firefighter I with more in-depth instruction about tools and procedures firefighters need.
All of this training was in addition to required monthly training through the department. All told I racked up about 300 hours of training the first year, about 250 of which were volunteered with no pay.
Training requirements are much more in other counties where fire departments also respond to medical emergencies.
There’s no denying that firefighting is exciting. I entered about five or six burning buildings, a couple times as the lead man on the nozzle. Nothing beats that rush!
The biggest satisfaction was helping save a life after a serious accident on Baker Road just west of M-91 in December 2007. I helped cut the severely injured driver out of a pickup truck that slammed broadside into a large tree.
The worst feeling was helping cut the body of a deceased man out of a blue Dodge Ram pickup truck that got broadsided by a semi after losing control on M-57 just west of Lake Road in February 2008. I still picture the scene every time I drive through there, the images of those lifeless feet entangled in the pedals haunting my memory.
Seeing a family huddle together in tears as they watch their house burn down is also tough.
I’ll probably always have a scar on my hand to remind me of the oven fire in early 2010 where I cut myself and got my first stitches.
I probably couldn’t have endured the grind if I were married at the time. I can’t count the number of rude awakenings the fire pager provided at 3 or 4 in the morning. There isn’t torture much worse than leaving a nice warm bed in the middle of a frigid February night and rushing out into shivering temperatures well below zero.
The Daily News was gracious enough to let me leave my work at the office to respond to fire calls. But that led to plenty of 12-hour or longer work days that ended late into the night after spending half of the regular workday on a fire scene.
My wife had to endure countless phone calls cut short when duty called while we were dating and engaged. I’m not sure how she would have handled me leaving our house in the middle of the night or not coming home until 8 or 9 at night after a full workday. No doubt it would have taken a toll on our home life.
And I’m not sure how I would feel about leaving my wife (and maybe someday children) home alone while I go out and have fun with my friends. Like I said, firefighting isn’t for everyone.
But it definitely was when the circumstances in my life allowed for it.
I had to leave the department and firefighting when we got married and moved to the Grand Rapids area in June 2010. But nothing can replace the pride I feel looking at the soot-stained fire helmet hanging on the wall in our dining room next to the picture of a house fire I helped fight.
I’ll always have the memories of the fires, the life saved, the lives lost and the brotherhood that got me through it all. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
Maybe someday I can do it again.

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