The glorious job of a volunteered firefighter

Published 10:03 am Friday, December 14, 2012

Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling

All the news about how wonderful everything is going in North Dakota (especially the western part of the state — see last week’s column) brought back memories of living in Fordville, the small town we moved to after my wife accepted the position as pastor of a Lutheran parish with three congregations.

What does it mean to live as an outsider in small-town North Dakota? As it turned out, being an outsider was less relevant than this truth: I was a young (late 20s), able-bodied man who also happened to be in town all day and all night. Most other men of my generation, if they hadn’t moved away completely, worked out-of-town, only returning to town at night. I was home with kids all day, every day, one of the few stay-at-home dads of my generation (apparently there are more of us now).

Email newsletter signup

It was inevitable, therefore, that I became a member of the local volunteer fire department soon after moving into the parsonage. Being a stay-at-home dad didn’t turn anybody off, probably because all had grown up in farm families with dad home (especially in winter).

Unfortunately, it was probably six months before anybody told me I was on the fire department. It only came up when someone happened to ask me while I was at the local grocery store when I planned on showing up at the monthly training meetings.

So I did. And because I was enthusiastic about taking the Firefighter I training course and asked questions about how to do things, like run the pumper and keep control of the hoses, they made me the official training and safety officer. If only I had kept my big mouth shut.

When the Firefighter I materials showed up, I was learning about combustion and fire suppression while teaching 15 other guys the same information. And it was all guys in the department. Women were not banned, but they were not encouraged.

Now the first responder medical team, that was all female, apparently because they didn’t pass out at the sight of human blood like so many of us “manly” men did. Clean a deer carcass or gut a fish? No problem. Assist in a difficult delivery with livestock? Piece of cake. Help someone with a cut on their face (minor) or an amputated finger (major)? We sit in the truck with our heads between our knees.

Some of the details from those firefighter training sessions have stuck with me. Heat in a fire increases at an exponential rate, so the faster the firefighting team gets to the fire, the more chance of saving buildings and lives. Burning wool — like in closets full of clothing — emits cyanide gas. Water makes metal fires burn hotter.

Toward the end of my firefighting tenure, one of the final calls involved staying up all night spraying water on the town’s only gas station because of a big fire in a large machine shop right next door. I went home after that fire, took a shower, got in the car and drove to the airport, sleeping for the entire flight — including take-off and landing — to a family gathering in Delaware. It’s the only time I’ve ever slept that well on an airplane.

Being safety officer and an outsider meant that people didn’t pay attention to me all the time when I was going over procedures at our monthly meetings, like monitoring the air supply in our tanks when we had our masks and other gear on. They didn’t like being told not to turn hoses on each other at full force.

I did have success with one particular item: I got the guys on the squad to leave the beer behind at the fire hall (for after the fire) instead of taking it with us to drink at the fire. It doesn’t inspire confidence in the populace if the firefighters are hanging around the crew truck and popping open cans of Bud Light. I say I had success, but my guess is that the real reason they listened to me about this was because the high school football coach, 6 feet 4 inches and 280 pounds of muscle, was standing right beside me when we brought it up for a vote. He thought it was a good idea, too.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.