On-call firefighters share dedication to service

Volunteers today include some college students, retirees and business owners

By Roberto Acosta

FENTON, Mich. (AP) — Juggling a job and newborn child against responding to collapsing structures and traffic accidents, firefighter Dustin Lucius is one of hundreds of on-call volunteer firefighters in Genesee County who balance everyday responsibilities with serving the community.

Lucius originally got involved with the department after discussions with firefighters in the Fenton community and a friend filling an on-call position.

“Most people, their dad, uncle or grandfather, were a firefighter. I was always interested and I had a buddy that was doing it,” said Lucius of fellow firefighter Bobby Maksymowski. “It’s a small town, being around friends, growing up and knowing a couple of people that did it, it just kind of interested me and was kind of fun.”

The experience has required some intensive training as well, with a six-month academy taking two evenings each week, two monthly sessions, as well as class sessions on individual topics such as ladder training and hazardous material situations.

“We feel training is really important,” Lucius said. “The more you do, the better you are at it when it’s needed.”

Sessions can be time consuming, from going over new construction and furniture materials to techniques for battling fires or dealing with new vehicles types and their inner workings to avoid serious injury.

“We see a lot of stuff that most people wouldn’t even think of seeing, some things that I wouldn’t want my worst enemies to see,” said Lucius, including a recent fatal train accident involving the death of a 17-year-old girl and witnessing one of his fellow firefighters removing a dead body from a burning home.

“The tough ones a lot of times are when peoples’ families are around and they see their family member hurting,” he said.

With a marriage three years ago to wife Jennifer and birth of his 17-month-old son Andrew, Lucius paused for a second before saying, “I couldn’t imagine if that was my kid or my spouse.”

Firefighters in Fenton are required to participate in at least 30 percent of total calls that take place in the city, but Lucius said “I would have to try to not make my thirty percent a year.”
“Out of 500 calls (a year), that’s really not that many. If you love what you do, you’re going to make it work,” he said. “There are times during dinner, or you might be at a family gathering, or Christmas or a birthday party, you can stay there or you can go.”

For the single men and women on departments, Lucius said, “They hang out at the fire department all the time waiting for calls. For guys that are married with kids, it can be a lot to juggle.”

With engineers, shop workers and business owners among the 33 volunteers on the department, Lucius noted, “If we’ve got some something big, we struggle getting personnel during the day.” Several other departments have said the same thing.

Fenton Fire Chief Bob Cairnduff, the city’s lone full-time staff member, said two part-time firefighters have been hired to act as first responders from noon to 5 p.m. during the week. That has held response times to the six-minute mark. He echoed Lucius’ sentiment about the difficulty getting on-call firefighters to respond to fires or incidents during normal working hours.
“When I first got on the department, there was a huge mix of GM, Ford workers. We had first-, second-, third-shift people,” said Cairnduff, a 16-year department member who’s spent six years as chief. “Ninety-five percent of my people now work first shift. There aren’t too many people that work second shift.”

Volunteers today include some college students, retirees and business owners. “It’s a big change from the old days, having a mix across the board,” Cairnduff said, with others working further away and not be readily available for calls on a consistent basis.

Twenty-seven-year old Fenton firefighter Dane Brown returned home and to the city’s fire station in 2010, after two years in the U.S. Navy.

Brown, a part-time EMT in Lapeer County and full-time student at the University of Michigan-Flint hoping to travel to medical school, was a member of the city’s department for a little more than a year prior to his departure in 2006.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” said Brown in response to making it out to enough calls per year, but firefighting runs in his veins.

His grandfather Jerry Peterson, uncle Ed Hadfield and stepfather Mike Peterson all served 30-plus years on the department.

Once on a fire call, Brown said, delegation of responsibilities is crucial to have things running smoothly and safely including ventilation, securing the water supply, overhaul and controlling the fire by knocking down any hotspots that may spark flames again.

“Everyone will come back and we’ll put the trucks back in service and put up the hose,” he noted. “It’s at least another hour or hour and a half after the scene, putting the equipment up. There’s definitely a lot that goes into the recuperation or recovery phase.”

When asked about the mentality it takes to be a firefighter, Brown said, “You can’t be fearless or out of control.”

“There is definitely fear you experience. I think you have to have a certain amount of calmness to experience an emergency situation,” Brown said. “I think if you are that type of person that is able to maintain a more structured outlook, a very calm mentality, and not get caught up in the emergency is the best mindset to have.”

Lucius noted, “It’s been hard to find quality people that want to stick around. We’ve had quite a big turnover lately.”

“It seems like we’ll have someone around for a year and then say we don’t want to do this,” he said.

While his wife has put the kibosh on having a scanner in their home, Lucius and his interest in the position have yet to waiver.

“After eight years, I still love it. I absolutely love it,” he said. “Nothing has really changed, other than the expectations in training. I’m still excited to go on calls.”


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