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A duty of honor and service

Posted 10/06/15 (Tue)

By Amy Robinson
Farmer Staff Writer

When you hear a siren go off in the middle of the day while you’re at work or during the evening while you and your family are gathered around the table for dinner, do you ever wonder about the intricate details that are woven into the blanket of a firefighter’s call to service?
Do you think about the amount of time that goes into each and every call? Or that each volunteer firefighter literally has to drop what they are doing, at a moment’s notice, to respond to that call for help?  Do you think about the nature of the call these firefighters are responding to, whether it’s a blazing grass fire, a fire alarm, a two-car rollover accident on the highway, an elderly man who’s having a heart attack, or an infant who has stopped breathing? Maybe you do think about the complexity of a firefighter’s call to service, and then  maybe you never really have.
Regardless, a firefighter’s duty is one of honor and one of service. Duties that should be recognized by all who benefit from the efforts of the volunteer firemen who serve McKenzie County. It’s a selfless act taken on day in and day out, 24/7, 365 days a year.
“It’s the passion - it gets in your blood,” said Watford City Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Warren Jarland, on why he is a volunteer firefighter. “You can get so tired, but at the end of the day, the pager goes off and you forget about that and you go. It’s an adrenaline rush. Some firefighters can lose that passion after a couple of years, and some keep it til the very end.  And if it were me or my family in a fire, I sure hope someone would come help me.”
“When my pager goes off, I still get a high heart rate,” states Watford City Volunteer Fire Department 2nd Assistant Chief Howdy Lawlar. “It’s a way you can contribute back to the community. I don’t do it for the recognition. We represent the county. And it’s comradery. Some of the stuff you go through with these guys, you know you can talk with them about it and they’ll always have your back.”
As of the end of August 2015, the Watford City Volunteer Fire Department had responded to 260 calls for service for the year, which is actually about 40 calls short of where they were at last year at the same time. However,  that number does not represent the calls they will respond to for the last four months of the year, also the time of year where they tend to get the majority of their calls.
“We’ve had 23 extrication calls in 2013, 18 in 2014, and I think the number of extrications will be a lot higher for 2015 than last year,” said Lawlar. “We’ve had less motor vehicle accidents this year, but the fatalities and the impacts are getting a lot more serious. We have more people in cars, not just single drivers. We have a lot more alcohol-related accidents too. Plus there’s a lot more road construction this year.”
Lawlar adds that he thinks it could get worse by the end of this year. Crews that are working out in the oil fields are going to get over-worked because there are less crews working right now, and that could subsequently cause more accidents resulting from fatigue. Currently, McKenzie County and Williams County lead the state in motor vehicle accident fatalities.
Not only are these volunteer firefighters responding to more serious and fatal calls, the number of false alarms has increased dramatically over the last year. According to Jarland, the Watford City Volunteer Fire Department probably responds to one false alarm a day. Most of those false alarms are occurring in commercial structures, including apartment buildings.
“The trouble with these false alarms is that the firemen are starting to not want to go on the calls, especially when the address pops up the same as having had several false alarms already,” said Lawlar. “We had 26 false alarm calls last year and that number has increased dramatically this year. And 28 of the false alarm calls this year have been canceled in the middle of the call. That is precious time wasted, when there are real emergencies. We’ve got to get these false alarm calls under control.”
Currently, there are 29 active volunteer firefighters in Watford City, with four new ones coming on. And the Watford City volunteer firefighters don’t just respond to Watford City area calls for service. Right now, they are still responding with Alexander volunteer firefighters on their calls. They will continue responding with Alexander until their level of comfort, after training earlier this year, is at a level they are secure in. That could be a year or even longer.
The Watford City Volunteer Fire Department is 100 percent volunteers, and if a firefighter is located in town, they are on-call. There is currently a weekend on-call shift in place where three firefighters will be on-call from 6:30 p.m. on Friday night to 6:30 p.m. on Sunday night. And it’s a shift that runs approximately an eight-week shift. The weekend on-call system started in January of this year.
One of the biggest challenges the Watford City volunteer firefighters are currently facing is the recruitment of firefighters.
“Our main challenge now is going to be recruitment and keeping the tradition going,” stated Watford City Volunteer Fire Department Lieutenant Steve Sanford. “We have a good roster of people, but it’s getting harder and harder to get recruits and keeping them well-trained. Another challenge we face is the new building structures. We aren’t used to three- and four-story buildings here. It’s starting to get to be like the big cities. It’s bigger towns. It’s city growth. It’s something we’re going to have to get used to. It’s inevitable.”
To help face some of these challenges, the fire department would love to see a training tower built for the firefighters to better equip themselves with the knowledge and experience of fighting structural fires at multiple levels.
“I would love to see us get a piece of land to build a training tower,” said Sanford. “That way we have something set up to train and learn on. It’s definitely a goal to move toward. We are comfortable with grass fires and accidents, but not necessarily a three-story fire.”
However, Sanford says they are as fortunate as can be to have the equipment that they have. He says they probably have the best volunteer fire department in the state. In the near future, the fire department is looking forward to two new trucks, a new grass rig and a tanker. This will allow them to be better equipped, says Sanford. Plus, they will also have one truck replaced in addition.
“We have one of the best communities,” said Sanford. “The local support, and the donations from our local people is just above and beyond what we could ever have expected. And we’ve had good backing from the community. We’ve always been there for them and it comes back around. They really support us. It’s people helping people.”
So the next time you hear a siren, you may think twice about those firemen who are dropping what they’re doing at a moment’s notice to serve and protect a community they love and are proud of. And instead of them thanking us, we need to be thanking them. It’s National Fire Prevention Week - I challenge you to thank a firefighter for their service.