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Mendon’s volunteer firefighters: ‘Our pay really is helping people’

October 10th, 2011 Posted in Opinion

By Mandy Morgan

MENDON–If there is one thing that Mendon Fire Chief Ray Olsen knows about, it is the power and effect of volunteer work. In his 38th year of volunteer service with the Mendon Fire Department, Olsen knows exactly how it feels to save houses, property, and lives.

A general contractor by trade, Olsen donates approximately 30 hours of his week at the station, on top of any time responding to emergency calls. The station system is completely volunteer-based, which means that all 21 squad members are unpaid and work elsewhere for their living, on top of helping at the station.

However, as of July of this year, the city implemented a new paid-on-call basis, where squad members can earn an hourly wage anywhere from $7 to $16. The amount that a squad member can earn depends on both their years of service and the extra certifications that they have. Every extra certification is worth $1 more.

“On average, our volunteers will make somewhere around $15 a week,” said Olsen. “It is mostly to just help compensate our volunteers for fuel to make it here, their time and effort. It’s not a money-making thing.”

How did Olsen become chief of such a worthy volunteer cause? “Mostly by default,” Olsen said. It is a position appointed by the mayor, and after the chief that Olsen assisted left the squad, Olsen was appointed, and has served as chief for about 35 of his 38 years at the station.

Even with all of his experience, however, Olsen said he has seen few fires quite as intense as the recent local fire that completely ravaged an unoccupied house. On the night of Sept. 11 the station got a call about the fire, but unfortunately the fire was “already fully involved when the call came,” Olsen said.

The fire was one of the largest fires that Mendon has ever seen, with a 12,000-square-foot house burning to the ground.

“It created quite the situation,” Olsen said. “If it had not been for the mutual aid companies that came and helped, we would have had a pretty serious issue.

“We have a good working relationship with neighboring departments,” Olsen said. It is custom for nearby departments to aid others with especially big emergencies. Units from Logan, Hyrum, Wellsville, Newton, North Logan, and Smithfield all responded to the call for help in Mendon, some coming with engines and others sending tankers of water. “When they have a situation we go help them, if we have a situation they come help us,” Olsen said.

The situation with the Mendon home was “pretty intense,” Olsen said. The fire was initially knocked down in the first hour that firefighters got there, but they had to keep units there throughout the night and into the next day, mostly for mop-up. This procedure takes place when there is fire burning underneath the rubble, and the fire has to be dug out and then extinguished. There were teams at the site into the next day mopping out hot spots, Olsen said.

Investigation of the fire is still in progress. “We know where the fire started, we know what was burning when the fire started,” Olsen said. “At this point we have not determined what started it; it is currently still under investigation.”

The lead investigators are the Cache County Sheriff’s Office and the State Fire Marshall, and they were at the site Oct. 5 combing through debris looking for evidence, Olsen said.

The owner of the house indicated that he will be re-building, Olsen said. He has insurance on the property and since the investigation is still open he will have to work out with the insurance company what is and what isn’t covered after the investigations are complete.

Fortunately, all fires in the area are not so big, Olsen said. Though it was a big local incident, the entire situation was able to be contained and the entire mountain didn’t burn down, with a lot of help from the volunteers and workers at stations all over the valley.

“Our job is to go,” Olsen said. “We are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

According to the run volume for the year, the station averages about 1.5 per week. “The most common calls are medical related, more than any other,” Olsen said.

“I would say that 90 percent of what we do is training, and day-to-day operations,” Olsen said. “The other 10 percent is actual emergency runs.” There is a lot more done in the background by the squad as opposed to what is done in actual emergency runs, Olsen said.

The entire volunteer squad of Mendon is fully certified and trained for their jobs. Some of them are firefighters, some are EMTs, and some are both. No matter the size of the town or the number of calls that are expected to come in each week, the fire department is needed.

“The bottom line is that our people are not exempt from difficulties,” Olsen said. “When the pagers go off, someone is having a bad day.”

Olsen said that we could count at least 20 houses off the top of his head that are still standing because the fire department was there to help. “I have a bulletin board with letters from people who we’ve helped, people who we’ve saved their property from burning down, people who have had a good outcome from a medical call because we were there.”
In the front window of the station hang pictures, cards, and letters from different people in the community thanking the squad for their care and service.

“Our pay really is helping people. That’s really what it boils down to. It makes us feel good about what we do. That’s what keeps us going. The public does appreciate what we do.”


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