Four decades as a firefighter

By Joey May
Hiawatha World – May 12, 2017

Photo by Roni Tietjens. The Robinson Fire Department presented Chief Dennis Tietjens with a 40-year service plaque. Front (l-r): Liz Jeschke, Laura Hooper, Jeremy Dolisi, Dennis Tietjens, Nicole Dolisi and Sean Sample; back, Jason Hooper, Craig Jeschke, Gordon Hooper, Matt Tietjens, Josh Long and Todd Massey.

A Robinson man just celebrated 40 years with the Robinson Fire Department.

April marked four decades of service for Chief Dennis Tietjens, who said he has many stories to share and many memories made during his tenure. The Robinson Fire Department recently presented him a plaque to commemorate Tietjen’s years of service.

He also said he has no plans to throw in the towel after crossing this milestone.

“You have to want to do this and I still want to do this,” Tietjens said.

Serving as a volunteer firefighter puts a person in a some serious — and dangerous situations — along with some that can be downright funny, he said.

“But you always have respect for people,” he said. “You go to people’s houses at their worst day and you need to respect that.”

After high school, Tietjens said he wanted to do something for his country. He still wanted to farm if he could, so he joined the National Guard in Sabetha. After six years in the communications of the unit from 1970-76, he was thinking of serving longer, but his father came down with cancer and Tietjens lost him in the spring of 1976. His mother had passed away when Tietjens was only 5 years old, so he was suddenly without both of his parents. At that time, he decided not to resign with the National Guard.

A year later he and his wife, Wanda, were married and he was still farming with his brother, Stanley, and still had the urge to do something for his community.

“After all, I still clearly remember what our president John Kennedy said when I was in school ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,’” he said. “I still remember that day very clearly.”

Having lived in the Robinson community most of his life, one day the chief Dean Erdley came and asked him if he would join the department. Tietjens agreed to come by the next meeting, where Erdley said “let’s go for a drive.”

“We got in one of the fire trucks and he drove out to the Upper Wolf Church south of Robinson,” Tietjens continued. “He parked the truck, got out and said ‘OK Dennis, you drive back to town. Well, as the saying goes, the rest is history, it is now 40 years later.”

Tietjens said he has been fire chief about half of the years he has been a member. He served as chief in the 1980s and again in the 1990s and was appointed again at the retirement of Harlan Kneisel a few years back.

Looking back over four decades brings a flurry of memories, but he said some calls stand out more than others. One of his first calls was a real learning experience, he said. Tietjens responded to a trailer house fire on the south end of town. When he arrived, the first fire truck was just pulling up and Loren Davenport, mayor at the time and a member of the RFD, was out back putting out a small fire. As Tietjens was donning his gear, the homeowner came up and asked if he could get his suitcase, just inside the side door. He had just returned from vacation.

“Somewhere, my train of thought went out the window,” Tietjens said. “I walked up to the trailer house and opened the door. If I had remembered any training, I wouldn’t have opened that door. I didn’t feel the door to see if it was hot, I didn’t do a 360 to walk around the house to read what the house was telling me. If I had, I would have felt that the door was hot, the windows were stained black, which means the air temperature inside was 900 to 1,100 degrees. If I would have looked around the windows or bottoms of the doors I would have seen a little puff of smoke then a draft back; the house was breathing and was starving for oxygen.”

When Tietjens opened that door, he said he gave the house what it was wanting — oxygen!!

“It had heat and fuel and now oxygen,” he said. “Fire shot out of that door like a freight training coming out of a tunnel at high speed. It had reached flash over point of around 1,300 degrees and everything ignited in the home at once,” he said. “I dropped to the ground, thank goodness I had all my gear on and a charged line in my hand. We were able to save things he had in closets and drawers and his refrigerator where he kept his money. And yes, I did hand him his suitcase intact.”

Tietjens remembered that was a close call and he uses it now for a training aid.

Another memory brought back a little humor. Tietjens said they were called to a house on fire. When they arrived, the lady homeowner was running out, telling them her kitchen was on fire.

“We went in and found her oven was boiling black smoke,” he said. “She had forgotten she was baking a cake, now it was really done for her. She was quite embarrassed.”

In another instance, a close call could have been quite bad, but it wasn’t. A lady had put a curling iron in the top drawer of a desk and left it on next to a can of hair spray.

“Well the heat from the curling iron blew the can of hair spray, resulting in a fire in the desk,” he said. “It burnt a 4-inch hole or so in the middle of the desk. What saved the day was there was a 60 gallon fish aquarium sitting on the desk and as the fire got hotter it cracked the glass on the aquarium, letting water flow from the tank — putting out the fire. The smoke was dense enough at one point that it left a smoke layer on the walls about four feet down. When we went in, all we found were fish flopping all over the floor.”

Tietjens said not all calls brought back memories he could chuckle about — their department has had it’s share of tragedy too over the years.

“One evening, we had a report of a doublewide trailer on fire,” he said. “The dispatcher was on the phone with him (the owner) when she paged us out. I could hear him say ‘I have pets in my house and I’m going back in to get them.’ I remember hearing the dispatcher tell him ‘Do not go back into the house!’”

Tietjens said the homeowner went back in to rescue his pets. When firefighters arrived very dense smoke was boiling from the home. The windows were stained black, so it was 900-plus degrees in the home.

“The dense black smoke indicates that there is a lot of unburnt fuel and is waiting for the temperature to reach around 1,300 degrees and it will all ignite at once,” he said.

Unfortunately, Tietjens said they knew the homeowner was already gone, because a person can only breathe up to 150 degrees — anything over that and the lungs will vaporize.

“So, the hard decision I made was not to try to get him — a decision I did not take lightly,” Tietjens said. “I knew at any moment that smoke was going to ignite and in a few minutes it did. It all but blew that house apart, the walls and roof moved. That would have been about the time our teams would have been in the home and we would have most likely lost them too.”

Tietjens said that one of the speeches all new members get is “Our goal as firefighters is to save lives and preserve property, but the most important goal is that you come home after the call.”

Tietjens said he continues to serve with the fire department for many reasons.

“To take part in the community and to be part of the community,” he said. “I tell myself I want to do this, much like anything else, if you want to do it, you will make and find the time to do it.”

“I can say I’m not looking forward to the next call, but I do look to it as a challenge. I’ve had some very rewarding moments,” he said.

One time, at a local store, he saw someone walking swiftly toward him. Tietjens turned to face him and he saw the man had his hand outstretched to shake his hand. He said, with tears in his eyes “Thank you and your department for saving my father’s life.”

Tietjens said that has to be one of the more memorable moments of his career, and the man’s father was one of only two people out of the many Tietjens had performed CPR on that was saved.

“We are here for our community, on call 24-7 and we volunteer our time to calls at no cost to the taxpayer,” he said. “And yes, if you are wondering we have even rescued a cat from a tree. I’m very proud to be one of the members.”


Posted by Gwen Dorr Romine, KSFFA Webmaster
KSFFA’s Fire News Blog Home Page

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