I’m sure we’ve all heard, and maybe even experienced, how the world is “getting smaller every day.” There’s probably no other place that this phrase is truer than in the fire service.
The more we dare to explore outside of our engine room doors, the more we find that there’s a brave new world out there full of firefighters who, despite their differences, are very similar to every one of us. A friend once told me that, in the end, it’s only the name of the fire department that changes.
While our shapes and sizes, apparatus color and even, dare I say, terminology may be different – we’re all still very much alike. Our challenges and concerns are comparable. Our dedication to serve our communities runs parallel lines despite the distance between us.
I recently created a recruitment campaign for a local fire company based around the theme: “Life’s an Adventure.” We know that being a real firefighter is about so much more than just fighting fires and saving lives. Certainly we can agree that life in the fire service is always an adventure.
Well, let me take you on a little adventure I was recently in the middle of.
Almost a year ago, I received an e-mail from my good friend and mentor Billy Goldfeder, leader of FirefighterCloseCalls.com and firefighter safety presentations around the country. He was passing on an e-mail from a neighboring fire chief who had received the same message from yet another fire chief in the Southern Ohio area.
Are you with me so far? The originator of the e-mail was a Mr. Doug Carmack from Tipp City, Ohio. Now, Doug’s not a firefighter and has no relationship to the fire service but I can testify that Doug, amongst other fine qualities, is truly a friend of the fire service. Actually, Doug’s a friend to any one in need.
Doug is the leader of a group from the First Baptist Church of Vandalia near Dayton, OH. His e-mail detailed the plight of a small volunteer fire department that his church group had worked with in distributing clothing to some less fortunate people in one of the poorest counties in the United States.
By the time the e-mail reached BillyG, he replied with “I’ve got a friend up in Buffalo who helps fire departments just like this.” He was referring to me and my connection to Hancock Hope, the non-profit organization created out of a need to support fire departments devastated by Hurricane Katrina three years ago.
Never one to turn my back on a call for help, I reached out to Doug Carmack to gather more information about the needs of the fire department he had described in his e-mail. We talked for quite a while by phone as he told me about what some might title: “The little fire department that could.”
This small fire department was bordering on destitute due to some tough economic conditions and a general lack of public and private support. Their gear was sub-standard; their only pumper was unreliable and unsafe; their equipment was dilapidated. And to top it all off, a former leader had allegedly run off with grant money that was earmarked to buy new equipment. Their deep Christian roots allowed them to forgive nonetheless.
What they were left with was a group of spirited, dedicated, hard working individuals who were committed to doing whatever it took to regroup and rebound from their hardships; a group of people dedicated to doing the right thing for their small community.
They also had something else positive going for them. They had Doug Carmack and the people of the First Baptist Church of Vandalia, Ohio on their side.
After a long talk full of detailed descriptions of what these people didn’t have, I finally asked him the name of the town that the fire department was serving. Doug said: “Oneida, Kentucky.”
I meekly asked him, “As in the Oneida Baptist Institute?” He said, “Yes, but how would you know about that?”
It turns out that my older brother Randy and his wife Trisha worked and taught at the Institute for about 7 years. Doug replied with, “Well that’s very interesting because my grandfather was one of the founders of the Institute.”
As they say on the Blue Collar Tour: “There’s your sign.”
My world, our world, just got a whole lot smaller. With three other individuals between us, from Oneida, KY to Tipp City, OH to Buffalo NY and points in between – an e-mail chain connected us in a bond to do the right thing: To help a fire department that desperately needed some outside intervention.
I immediately contacted Dan Macakanja, friend and president of Hancock Hope and relayed the call for help. Dan and his group of volunteers did as they always do. They responded immediately by pitching in, sending used turn out gear and equipment to Oneida. Dan connected with Doug and developed a comprehensive list of their needs.
Fast forward about nine months and another team of angel investors appears on the horizon. Scott Zitzka, friend and past chief of the Newstead Volunteer Fire Company here in Erie County, New York called my office to offer a gift, if we could find a fire department in need of it. Newstead had just replaced a 1986 Ford/Young Fire Equipment fire engine.
Based on a flooded market of used fire apparatus, this small rural fire company, fortunate enough to be blessed with a new fire engine, decided that the old engine didn’t owe them anything and that it would benefit everyone if they could pay it forward.
With this seemingly random act, the members of the Newstead Volunteer Fire Company were about to find out that their world was going to get smaller too.
You see, they have a lot in common with the Oneida Fire Department. Just like Oneida, the Town of Newstead is blessed with a group of spirited, dedicated, hard working individuals who are committed to doing the right thing for their small community. They don’t have a lot, but what they have, they have earned through sweat equity.
It never ceases to amaze me that those who seem to have the least, help the most. I told Scott, “We’ve got just the fire department for you to help out with your generous donation.” Once again, I immediately turned to the Hancock Hope team to coordinate the donation.
Oneida is a small town in the heart of Clay County, Kentucky – the second poorest county in the country, with a total population of 20,000 people. There’s one middle school for the entire county. The closest hospital is 30 miles away. So is the closest ambulance.
The fire department protects a 34-square mile section (not including elevation) of the Daniel Boone National Forest and target hazards include a natural gas distribution center, plenty of logging and mining; the Baptist Institute and miles of winding roads and expansive farms, all of which provide plenty of practice at extricating accident victims.
The fire department was formed in 1978. They were still operating their first fire truck: a 1979 Ford/American Fire Apparatus with a front bumper mounted pump and a 750-gallon tank that leaked more than 200 gallons of water before they could get it to the fire. It has manual brakes and they have to raise the hood at every call to prevent it from overheating.
In certain ways, it’s the land that time forgot. The women work and the men hunt and fish for food to feed their families. Yeah, you read that right.
Their means are somewhat primitive while their needs have caught up to the modern world. Up until about 10 years ago, they were still tilling the land using plow horses. The median individual income is $9,000 per year.
The total fire department budget is about $8,000 annually. Some money comes from state support based on responses and training performed (there’s a novel concept); and the rest comes from donations and $25 per household subscriptions for fire protection.
Can’t picture where I’m talking about? Let me put it in perspective for you. The next county over is Hazard County. That’s right, as in… "The Dukes of Hazard." This is Hatfield and McCoy country, Boy.
But you know what? It’s the darnedest thing, despite their seemingly old world ways they still need fire, rescue and emergency services just like the rest of us. Isn’t it a small world?
On September 9, 2008 four members of the First Baptist Church of Vandalia drove to Buffalo to pick up the fire engine and for the first time, meet their benefactors. Doug Carmack, Joe Wright, Tom Sweigart and Michael Whitby made the trek and met Dan, me, Scott Zitzka and Newstead Chief Doug Jones at the fire academy where I work.
The connection was instantaneous.
We hit it off as if we’d been friends for life. Quite frankly, we hit it off as if we’d been brother firefighters for life. Jokes and jabs quickly ensued and we enjoyed a meal together at a local restaurant, treated by our new friends from Ohio.
Young Michael was the only one in their group who has a connection to the emergency services community. He’s a volunteer EMT in Tipp City and is studying to become a firefighter. He was like a kid in a candy store when he got to tour our training facilities, and more so when he got to drive the fire engine for hundreds of miles back to Ohio.
Dan made another connection on behalf of the Oneida Fire Department. He found a used ambulance in Mississippi that was up for adoption by a family in need.
Guess who was donating the ambulance? The West Hancock Fire-Rescue Department that had been obliterated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Thanks to the Hancock Hope organization and others, their needs were satisfied and they jumped at the opportunity to do the right thing as so many others had done for them.
Two other men from Tipp City bought their own tickets and jumped on a plane to Mississippi, driving the ambulance hundreds of miles and four states back on their own dime, including a costly tire blowout.
The church group cleaned and polished the two pieces of apparatus and the equipment on board before setting an elaborate scheme into motion.
They contacted the Oneida Fire Department and asked them to set up for another community-wide clothing distribution on Saturday-October 12th at their fire station. Scott Zitzka and I, along with Scott’s fellow Newstead firefighters Mike Logel and Mike Mutter drove nine hours to Oneida, arriving just before dinner on Friday night.
Prior to our arrival, the church group had snuck the fire engine and ambulance through Oneida (as best you can sneak a fire engine and an ambulance through a town with only one way in and one way out.) Very cleverly though, they didn’t letter the vehicles until they got to their final destination.
Doug Carmack and 11 other members of his church group greeted us at Doug’s cabin nestled on the Meadow Branch of the Little Bullskin area of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There we dined on local fare of elk and squirrel with plenty of other dishes to supplement our back woods buffet. We ate like kings.
Besides trying several new foods, I enjoyed another special treat that night as well. My aforementioned brother Randy and his wife Trisha came up from Spring City, Tennessee to spend the night. I hadn’t seen them since my father passed away almost 4 years ago.
After a late night of moving music and conversation on the front porch, we awoke to the aroma of breakfast cooking and fresh coffee brewing. The menu consisted of pork loin, sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, fried eggs, biscuits, sausage gravy and corn bread. Not exactly heart-healthy but it did more than fill our bellies for the big day ahead. (I checked myself into a cholesterol rehab center as soon as I returned home.)
The fire department had done their job and invited all of the town’s people to the fire station to pore through the boxes and boxes of clothing and footwear that the church group had brought for them.
With everyone waiting outside the fire station, we rolled into town, lights flashing and sirens and air horns blaring. The firefighters and citizens stood in amazement as we pulled up. You see, they had no idea that the apparatus was coming for them. It was a complete surprise.
There in front of them was parked a new fire engine and a rescue with the Oneida Fire Department name, their fire department name, lettered on both sides of each vehicle. They were speechless and tears filled their eyes. We welled up too as we explained that these new tools were for them and they were free, no questions asked.
Words can’t describe the looks on their faces as they struggled to convey their deep sense of appreciation for these unsolicited gifts. They couldn’t believe that anyone, let alone complete strangers from hundreds of miles away, would do something like this for them. Needless to say, it was a tremendously humbling experience. There were plenty of hugs for everyone.
They marveled at their new equipment and were eager to test drive it. Michael Whitby proudly took them for driver training, making sure they had full command of the lights and siren controls, reminding us all of our once-youthful fire service zeal. The boys from Newstead reviewed pump operations and vehicle maintenance, sharing some of the 22-year old pumper’s quirks with its proud new owners.
We met good folks like Vernon Gay, fire department chairman; and Captain Danny Robinson, Firefighter Jeff Love and their Chief John Davidson. We spent most of the day with them, comparing differences and similarities between our fire departments; getting to know each other and sharing stories of how the fire service is about doing the right thing.
That evening we were treated to another special occasion. The firefighters and their wives came up to Doug’s cabin to feed us a meal. Together, outside by the camp fire, we sat on logs and stumps and dined together on rabbit, chicken and a dozen other homemade dishes.
We shared more stories and bantered ways we could help them be more successful. We shared the kind of camaraderie that only comes with earning the title of firefighter; uncovering the real beauty of the fire service: instant acceptance wherever you go.
Chief Davidson choked up as he tried to relate their gratitude for the apparatus donations, “Two years ago, the state told us we didn’t exist as a fire department. They gave us five years to re-build. Now our volunteers are trained and proud to respond.”
“With that old engine, we never knew if we were going to get to the fire - or if we were going to get home alive. What you folks have given us; what you have done for us, is truly amazing.”
We only asked for one thing in return. We made him promise that they would take the old engine out of service. Then we ended the evening with a handshake and a promise to do more for them.
After another belly-warming breakfast, we left the following morning with more than we had left behind. We left them better prepared to serve their community safely, but we were better off because of it. Our lives were changed for good.
On the way home, we stopped and had lunch at Billy Goldfeder’s house with him, his lovely wife Teri and their family. We tried our best to put our new experience into perspective.
Here’s my concern. I know that there are more fire departments out there who would love to do the right thing but are bogged down by only being able to do things right.
Their bylaws, district rules, attitudes or just perceptions allow them to throw perfectly good but used equipment in the dumpster – but don’t permit them to give it to a fellow fire department in need. While I understand it, I just don’t get it. It bothers me deeply.
Certainly, the fire service has always been about doing things the right way, but more importantly, it was built on the foundation of doing the right thing for our neighbors, our fellow citizens and our brother firefighters.
Expand your horizons and make your world smaller all at the same time. Do the right thing and get involved in supporting Hancock Hope. Volunteer with your time and talents – or with your checkbook or other resources.
There's a print that hangs on the wall of Oneida's fire station that I think best sums up this team effort. It reads: "I am my Brother's Keeper."
Hancock Hope is brotherhood proven. Prove you’re a real firefighter.
For more information about Hancock Hope and how you can help, visit www.firefighternation.com/profile/HancockHope or contact Dan Macakanja at 716-341-2870 or email@example.com.
UPDATE 11/10/08 - Here's another great example of a small department stepping up in a big way. Congratulations to them for "doing the right thing."
Tiger Schmittendorf serves as Deputy Fire Coordinator in the County of Erie Department of Emergency Services (Buffalo NY).
He is a Nationally Certified Fire Instructor and has been a firefighter since 1980. He created a recruitment effort that doubled his own fire department’s membership and helped net 525+ new volunteers countywide.
Schmittendorf can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at: www.firefighternation.com/profile/tiger5.