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Mendon volunteer firefighters: ‘Somebody’s gotta do it; little communities can’t afford fire protection’

December 15th, 2010 Posted in Arts and Life

Story and photos by Storee Powell

MENDON –The chief of the Mendon Fire and Rescue has seen it all, from the odd to the gruesome. For example, the incident where he unbolted a toilet seat with an adolescent boy stuck on it because his friends put super glue on it. Fire Chief Ray Olsen had to carefully transport the boy on the seat to the hospital so it could be surgically removed, an awkward task at best.

Olsen made 2.5 cents for the hour it took to accomplish the incident response, but money isn’t why he does what he does. The reward is in the thank you, Olsen said.

The station houses a bulletin board covered in thank-you notes from preschoolers to fire victims. One letter reads: “The fire could have been much worse if it was not for the quick response of the Mendon volunteer fire department. You guys are a lifeline for the people who live here. Our gratitude seems to grow each day.”

Olsen said, “That is why we do what we do. That is the pay. I get $120 a year. When you break that down with the hours we put in, it is 2.5 cents per hour. But we don’t do it for the money. We do it because it is a sense of self, of community. Somebody’s gotta do it; these little communities can’t afford fire protection.”

Olsen, like 72 percent of the 1.15 million firefighters in the U.S., is a volunteer fireman and EMT, all while he works his full-time job as a general contractor.

In Cache Valley alone, ten of the 11 fire departments are volunteer. Logan is the only career-based department in the valley. In the state of Utah, there are 232 fire departments, of which about 200 are volunteer, Olsen said. According to a July 5, 2009 Parade article titled, “Why they serve,” 20,000 of the nation’s 30,200 fire departments are volunteer.

While responding to fires in shiny red trucks is fun and exciting, the training, equipment maintenance and administrative work these volunteers do is not so fun and exciting. Olsen said the initial certification by the state of Utah is 600 hours for an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and 500 hours for firefighters. To remain certified, volunteers must train throughout the year.

Mendon volunteers meet every Thursday night to train and do maintenance work on vehicles and the building. Olsen said his staff will rack up about 500 hours a year doing this, while Olsen does around 1,200 hours a year. Olsen has been the chief for 34 years, and in addition to fighting fires, he writes and manages grants 30 hours a week to supplement the inadequate city funds.

“It is very labor intensive, I have to do close out reports and accountability reports,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the grant programs we’d die on the vine here.”

The department runs on an annual budget of $39,000, Olsen said. This comes from taxes, but is not enough considering it costs $2,000 to outfit one firefighter and $15,000 for one self-contained breathing apparatus. With 18 volunteers, Olsen relies on grants from sources like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Forest Service. Over the last eight years, they’ve received a quarter of a million dollars in grants, which comes out to about $50,000 per year.

Also, Olsen gets creative to stretch the dollars. Several of the trucks at the station have been donated, but were not emergency trucks. For example, they got a flatbed truck donated which Olsen converted into a tanker truck. It cost $10,000 for the job, much cheaper than the $150,000 it would have cost to buy a new one.

A tight budget isn’t the only thing volunteers have to operate under; there is also the element of surprise. “We never know when a call is going to come in, I wish we could schedule them, though,” Olsen said.

Whether the volunteers are paged at 4 a.m. or 4 p.m., they respond to the soul-penetrating air raid siren which can be heard all the way to Hyrum on a clear day, Olsen said.

Eric Andersen is an eight-year volunteer at the department as well as a career firefighter in West Jordan.

“It always comes when you don’t want it, and there’s been many a family party that we’ve had to miss,” Andersen said. “When my wife is doing homework with the kids and getting them ready for bed and I am here doing training.”

The Mendon Fire and Rescue responds to about 150 calls a year, or about three a week. Nationally, volunteer firefighters can expect to answer 300 calls a year, according to “Why they serve.” However, the calls can be five a week and none for a month, Olsen said, whose home is about two blocks from the station, enabling him to get there quickly.

Brent Linford has been volunteering for 10 years as a firefighter and EMT.

“It is part of the commitment, we signed up to do it and this is what you do,” Linford said. “It takes an understanding family, because if not, they can resent it. It is as much a burden on them as it is on us.”

Why do these individuals submit themselves to sleep-deprived states, stressful situations and long days?

“I started volunteering because I felt I had something to offer,” Andersen said. “I thought I could bring in experience, but I’ve gained more volunteering because of the enthusiasm volunteers have here for things I used to find mundane like cleaning the bathrooms and doing tours for the kindergarteners.”

Linford said besides the adrenaline rush, he enjoys the camaraderie with the crew.

“We all have the same experiences, so we can talk amongst each other easier than we can talk to a counselor,” Linford said. “Everybody here is more than just associates, but another family. If somebody needs help on a personal level, anyone is more than willing to help them out.”

Despite the busy hours of training and emergency response, the Mendon Fire and Rescue crew strives to do it all professionally. This is evident by the reflection which can be seen in the paint of the cleaned and shined fire trucks.

Olsen said, “We take pride in what we do and strive to maintain a level of professionalism because it is the right thing to do. Showing up with a dirty fire truck sends the message we don’t care, but we do care.”

Andersen said, “There’s a lot of selflessness here. You always think you’re too busy, but when it is something good, you’ll be happy.”

The department is always in need of more volunteers. For information on the Mendon volunteer fire department, visit http://www.mendonutah.net/mendon_city.htm.


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