From the current issue of the Beaver Beacon:
“You might go a couple months without a call, and then you get several calls in the course of just a few weeks. That when all of our training comes in. We have to be ready.”
These words, spoken by long-time firefighter, John Works, certainly played out on Beaver Island this winter.
A serious car fire on Donnel Mor’s Lane was the beginning. Within a matter of days, another fire: Paul Welke, returning to the island from an emergency medical run, spotted smoke. He immediately called it in. This time it involved the home of Jeff Stewart and Rita Palmer. It had started in a shed, and spread to the house. Paul’s quick alert enabled firefighters to get to the scene in time to save most of the home. Another car fire happened on Hannigan Road. Finally, a chimney fire at the home of Bill and Andi Kohls brought the department out in force.
With so much fire-fighting activity spurring my interest, I asked John Works to give me some insight. He agreed to talk to me about the Beaver Island Fire Department.
Beaver Island’s fire fighters are a devoted bunch! Though others, including Bud McDonough and Walter Wojan, organized to fight fires through the years, this group, with Tim McDonough as the chief, is the first to have gone through the 800 hours of training to become certified firefighters.
That was more than thirty years ago. The guys would crowd into a small room at the sub station to watch training videos every week. Intermittently, teachers in the field would come over from the mainland for hands-on training. Eventually, they took the official state test to qualify as Firefighter I and II, certified firefighters.
New people joining the ranks, of course, have to go through training, too, but the learning doesn’t stop for any of the team. The firefighters meet every week; often the meetings involve methods and means of handling situations.
“Firefighting has changed drastically over the years,” Works said. “With changes in building materials, the fuels that feed a fire are different.” In traditional buildings, a fire would generally start slowly and build to a crest. Now, with more plastics and synthetic materials, a fire can build quickly and will often create enough heat to snuff itself out. It continues to smolder, then, and when windows break, that suppressed fire can explode. This changes the way a trained firefighter approaches a fire. When entering a building now, breathing apparatus is essential as many materials are toxic when heated. Materials in automobiles have changed, too, causing fires to be more volatile. Air bags, alone, have necessitated big changes in how car fires are handled.
In addition to weekly meetings and training sessions, on a monthly basis, teams of five go through each fire truck and all equipment. The trucks are cleaned, tires are checked and aired up, fluids are filled or changed as needed. All tanks and hoses have to be examined. Everything from breathing apparatus to thermal imaging equipment is tested to make sure it’s in good working order. The teams change from one month to the next, to add the advantage of a fresh pair of eyes, to make sure nothing is overlooked.
Our firefighters are on call 24 hours a day. Pay? “Not really,” Works informs me, “there is a stipend. If you make it to every single meeting and each training session, if you never miss a monthly rotation for vehicle and equipment maintenance, you might get $500.00 in a year.” He’s quick to add, though, that they aren’t in it for that reason. “This is a way to give back to this community that I love,” he said, “We are all dedicated to this job. Helping the people is it’s own reward.”
I’ve heard that John Works is often one of the first firefighters to enter a burning building. When I tell him that, his response is immediate:”Every firefighter is important,” he says, “and every job is important.” Some firefighters go inside to fight the fire; others support the effort from outside. “We need the trucks, the tanks, the water: the outside crew is essential to us being able to get the job done.” He adds, “I couldn’t do this job without my faith in God.”
When I mentioned the Island Treasures Re-Sale Shop, run by the ladies of the Beaver Island Fire Auxiliary, John’s voice softened. “They are angels,” he tells me. “Today’s equipment is so specialized, so expensive, we can’t possibly thank them enough for their support!” He went on to give an example: a single radio, necessary for alerting the firefighters when they are needed, can cost between six and eight hundred dollars. “Their devotion is every bit as grand as that of the firefighters,” he said, “God bless ’em!”
When I asked if there was anything I hadn’t thought to ask, or anything he’d like to offer, Works answered right away: “Protect yourselves! The saddest thing is that in 80% of house fires, the smoke alarms have been disabled. They save lives! They buy time! Check your batteries; keep your smoke detectors operational. That’s the best advice I can give.” Beyond that, Works mentioned that trees growing close along a driveway, or even snow that hasn’t been pushed back, can prevent needed water from getting to your home in the case of a fire. Consider that emergency vehicles need to be able to get through, and plan ahead.
At this time, our fire-fighting crew consists of: Tim McDonough, John Works, Jim Wojan, Gerald LaFreniere, Tammy LaFreniere, Bob Marsh, Ron Marsh, Joe Timsak, Jim McDonough, Darrel Butler, Dillon Butler, Neal Boyle, Tom Whitman, Steve Crandall, Bruce Cull, Kevin White, Mike McDonough and Levi Connor. They each deserve out heart-felt gratitude for all they contribute to our community. Thank you!