Neighborly help

By Chris Haxel
Manhattan Mercury – April 3, 2015
Submitted by Newz Group Clipping Service – April 8, 2015

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Beth McQuade wanted to be a volunteer firefighter five years ago. She even got so far as to submit an application, but then life got in the way–McQuade changed jobs and found herself with little time to spare, so firefighting fell by the wayside.

Recently, however, McQuade heard Riley County’s Zeandale station might shut down because there weren’t enough volunteers. She lives in Zeandale, so about two weeks ago, she signed up again. The timing couldn’t have been better, because dry conditions and seasonal burning made McQuade’s first outing a bit of a baptism by fire.

“I had no idea what was going on,” McQuade said. “I was guiding hose for a couple of different guys. We actually went down and lit backfires to prevent it from going up to the housing area.”

McQuade said the best way to learn is by simply being at the scene of a fire with more seasoned volunteers.

“My eyes were starting to water and the guys told me to blink fast because it seems to help with the burning sensation,” she said. “So I learned a lot from being there with everybody.”

Currently McQuade is one of about 130 volunteer firefighters in Riley county, a department that provides service to Leonardville, Ogden, Randolph and all unincorporated areas of the county.

Fire Chief Pat Collins, himself a former volunteer, describes the department as “neighbors helping neighbors.”

“You have people out there that can’t be a firefighter for some reason, whether it’s age, or they’re handicapped, or they have other commitments that prohibit them from doing that,” Collins said. “So we have people that volunteer their time to provide that.”

The time commitment varies, and Collins said the minimum is about 25 hours per year for training. Some people might only work 40 hours per year–others might work 300 hours.

“The nice part about being a volunteer is if you’re not available, you don’t respond to those calls,” Collins said. “We have 130 volunteers, we have 130 different levels of commitment.”

Commitment is key, since none of the volunteers receive compensation for attending training or responding to calls.

Tomas Patry is one of the more committed volunteers. He’s a senior in mechanical engineering at Kansas State University, and has been a volunteer firefighter for five years. On top of classes and work–with the occasional side gig as a wedding DJ-Patry estimates he responds to at least 75 calls per year.

“It’s a lot of time management,” he said.

Patry has enjoyed it enough that he’s “seriously considering” a firefighting career after graduation.

“The feeling of saving peoples’ lives and property that means something to them is a big thing,” he said. “It’s more of an accomplishment than having money.”

The initial process of becoming a volunteer firefighter is “pretty easy,” according to Collins. Applicants need a driver’s license, the ability to pass a background check and drug test, and what Collins calls “a desire to assist.”

The department then conducts an interview to ensure volunteers understand the expectations of the work, and, after that, orientation begins. Volunteers take a couple of classes and then the new firefighters enter their probationary period, which lasts for 90 days.

It’s a process Hayden Borth recently completed, after initially signing up about seven months ago. During probation, firefighters aren’t allowed into burning buildings, and they can’t drive fire trucks while responding to calls unless there’s an officer riding with them.

Borth, a K-State sophomore in construction sciences, said the next step is to get qualified to drive the trucks, which can take a while because it’s too risky for the department to simulate emergency situations.

“Really you gotta wait until there’s an emergency and then you can drive,” he said.

In addition to regular training with their assigned stations, volunteers also train with Manhattan city firefighters because sometimes the departments work together on calls. About a dozen firefighters from both departments conducted “apparatus familiarization” recently, alternately showing each other where they keep equipment on their respective trucks.

Next they practiced relay pumping, in which water is pumped from one truck through another to extend the reach of the hose.

“We have the same residential fires as paid departments in cities,” Collins said. “Most of the time we don’t have the water supply sitting on the corner, we have to bring our own.”

McQuade, attending her first training session with city firefighters, said she valued the experience.

“Everyday is gonna be a different day, every scenario is different so it’s the excitement of the unknown but having the guidelines to be who you need to be to do what you need to do,” she said.

Borth, meanwhile, encouraged citizens to volunteer.

“We can use all the people we can,” he said. “it’s fun. It’s a good way to serve your community and, yeah, it’s pretty fun too.”

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