Hometown heroes — a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Garden City firefighters’ lives

By Kelton Brooks
Garden City Telegram – March 25, 2014

GCFD's Ryan Powers and Lt. Jason Bennett. Photo by Becky Malewitz.

GCFD’s Ryan Powers and Lt. Jason Bennett. Photo by Becky Malewitz.

In 2012, there were 1,375,000 home fires in the U.S. That’s a fire every 85 seconds somewhere in the nation. Thirty firemen at the Garden City Fire Department were in that number of brave, heroic and fearless — three words synonymously tied to firemen — firefighters who risked their lives to battle those flames. We see them as men draped in an insulated coat to withstand the heat, an oxygen mask pushed through the heavy smoke, and a protective helmet for falling objects, but behind the mask — like all others — are family men and everyday citizens who try to balance two different extremes in their lives.

“Each has it’s own unique challenges, we’ll put it that way,” said Ryan Powers, 33, who has been with the Garden City Fire Department since 2007. “It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also very trying at times. There are things that we have to see and do that are pretty tough.”

Back in 2002, Powers volunteered as a fireman in Scott City for five years before joining GCFD. He has a wife who runs a daycare, a 6-month-old daughter and a 3-year-old son who gladly soaks up his time.

“When I get home, my time is well spoken for,” Powers said as he laughed.

Lt. Jason Bennett, 39, who has been with the Fire Dept. since 2002, served in the military and drove a semi-truck throughout the county before being hired at GCFD. Bennett participated in Bikes Across Kansas in 2008, which is the annual eight-day bicycle tour across the state of Kansas, and is a member of the Garden Cycle Bicycle Club. He has two daughters, 3 and 6 years old, and a son who is 9.

Like the youngest daughter’s older siblings who are involved with wrestling, Bennett said his 3-year-old daughter has also gotten into the act.

“She’ll stand in a little 3-year-old pose and try to take me down by the knees,” Bennett said as he laughed. “She’s a lot of fun.”

While both Bennett and Powers relish their lives as husbands and parents, Powers said their wives do understand the risk in their line of work.

“I’m sure they do, and I don’t think they ever get used to it, but I think they trust our training. I think a lot of their fears are perpetuated by T.V. shows that they watch like Chicago Fire. It’s not a lot of realistic fire shows out there. When the wife says “oh my God can that happen,” most of the time it’s a no,” Powers said.

When firemen are not out dousing raging fires, or tending to other smaller issues, most tend to think they are standing around waiting for something to happen, but the two said that is far from the truth.

Powers said the typical day starts out with truck checks, and checking every piece of equipment they have. During that time, the lieutenant, Bennett, will spend time in the dispatch office and plan the day.

“It’s a lot of interaction with the public, and we’re out here to help and educate people,” Bennett said. From there, they perform building inspections with businesses in the town, public education by talking to schools, fire extinguisher training in the community, and, during summer months when it’s warmer, they test all the hydrants in the inspection districts.

“Everyday is a new day, and everyday is an opportunity to learn something new. Everyday is an opportunity to refine something that we thought we really knew well. It’s an adventure. It’s multifaceted. It’s the ability to help the public. If somebody is having the worst day of their lives, we can step in and help,” Powers said on why he enjoys life as a fireman. He also mentioned the heightened automotive technology, and how cars are being built lighter but stronger with more exotic metals.

“Whether it’s higher pressure tools, or up-to-date safety devices to overcome the newer technology in vehicles, and upgrading the air packs we use, fire services are not exempt from technology,” he said.

Bennett, who is also on the Technical Rescue Team at the Fire Dept., said working with the latest and up-to-date tools is his favorite, and an area he thrives in.

Recently he heard that some bunker gear around the country will get lined with kevlar because a lot of firefighters have been shot at while out fighting a fire.

“Arsonist want that building to burn, and they don’t want someone to put it out, so they stayed behind and attacked people who tried to put that fire out,” Bennett said.

There have been a lot of firefighters who have been put down by gunfire, who are trying to do their jobs by possibly saving the buildings and saving people’s lives, Bennett said.

“A lot of technology is good, but this is some of the first technology I’ve heard of helping people who are trying to help people. It kind of gives us a sobering thought. I’d much rather walk into a building that’s on fire than someone shooting at me across the way.”

Even with state-of-the-art equipment or training, some things can’t prepare you for what happens in the field.

Both have experienced heart-breaking moments as firefighters.

Bennett still recalls working a six-person vehicle crash about three of four years ago northwest of town. There were two adults in the front seat and four kids in the back. It was driven over by a semi-truck.

“At the time, my son was the age of the smallest child in there, that sticks with me everyday,” he said. “Everyday I think about that and look at my kid and I can still see that little boy’s face in the backseat of that car. At that moment it crushed me. I had to stop and take a break from what I was doing trying to help and recover what were bodies at the time, out of the vehicle. I had to step back and separate the incident from my life, so I could do the job that had to be done.”

Bennett has a photo of his family taped inside of his helmet underneath the webbing so it is the last thing he sees before entering an emergency situation.

Powers said the incident he remembers most came early in his time at GCFD. A semi-truck collided head on with another vehicle on U.S. Highway 50 heading to Lakin. It was a double fatality.

“I remember the panic and emotion I was feeling, and, to this day, I kind of get nervous out on the highways sometimes when I see people driving erratically, because you don’t forget something like that. None of the really bad ones ever leave you.”

Gwen Romine, KSFFA Webmaster