May 27 • 02:34 AM

Firefighters always on call

Volunteers juggle jobs, family life, holidays to help keep communities safe

March 03, 2010
TRI-CITY AREA — The Valentine's Day fire at Champion Bus, Inc. in Imlay Township brought to light some of the challenges faced by volunteer fire departments called on to battle fires of long duration.

Beginning at around 7:40 p.m. on Sun., Feb. 14, it took firefighters from 10 departments nearly 17 hours to completely extinguish the blaze that destroyed one of Champion's 100,000-square-foot production facilities on Graham Road.

It wasn't until around 12:30 p.m. on Mon., Feb. 15, with a few puffs of smoke surrendering themselves from the charred debris, that a few dozen exhausted firefighters began gathering up hoses and equipment in anticipation of leaving the scene.

It had been a long, hard night and those still on hand exhibited the physical and emotional toll the experience had taken.

At a minimum, the Champion fire brought attention to the importance of mutual aid agreements among local departments. Moreover, it exposed the extraordinary demands that are sometimes placed on volunteer firefighters and departments.

On Monday morning (March 1), Imlay City Fire Chief Kip Reaves and Asst. Chief Rick Horton reflected on the marathon fire and the lessons learned.

Both Reaves and Horton acknowledge that the Champion fire was the longest they had ever fought. And because of the fire's magnitude and duration, they and others at the scene were presented with uncommon challenges.

The first was to ensure that sufficient manpower was available at the scene. That was accomplished through a mutual aid agreement shared by 19 participating members of the Lapeer County Fire Association. Participating members span both Lapeer and St. Clair counties.

The most recent agreement, executed in 2006, provides for fire protection within each of those boundaries for the purpose of providing needed personnel and equipment and to ensure the public safety, health and welfare.

"Our mutual aid agreement is very important to all of us," says Reaves. "For a lot of years it was just a handshake — not an official agreement. Because of liability issues it became necessary to have a legal document.

Imlay City Asst. Fire Chief Rick Horton and Chief Kip Reaves say they share the common mantra, that ‘once a firefighter, always a firefighter.’ photo by Tom Wearing.

"The agreement gives us resources we would not normally have," he says. "It provides us with the trucks, water and manpower we need."

As it turned out, the Imlay City department would need all the help they could get on Feb. 14, as nearly 60 firefighters poured more than a million gallons of water on the burning assembly plant. Much of the necessary water had to be drawn from nearby ponds, notes Reaves.

"The (Champion) fire was unique," Reaves says. "Everything was magnified a hundred times. Our traditional house fire involves about 2,500 square feet. We can normally handle something like that with three trucks and 20 people.

"This fire was so much worse because of the size of the building, the (icy) weather and the fuel load inside the building."

In addition to challenging their firefighting skills, Horton points out that the fire tested the physical and mental stamina of everyone at the scene.

"When our pagers go off, we have no idea of the size of the fire or how long we're gonna' be there fighting it," says Horton. "That's something we have to accept as firefighters. We can't just punch out and go home."

Horton, who was incident commander at the Champion fire, says it is crucial that firefighters stay hydrated and energized, and that means getting something to eat.

"Just a sandwich and a coffee can make you feel a hundred percent better," says Horton. "They have to be fed to sustain their energy. You can only go for so long."

Reaves explains that firefighters will eventually begin to show signs of fatigue during fires of four hours or more, increasing their chances of injury. He stresses that his list of "on-scene priorities" includes guarding the safety of his fellow firefighters.

"Our priorities are to (1) protect the lives of the public and of our firefighters; (2) establishing an incident command; (3) saving all property that is salvageable; and (4) protecting the environment at the site," Reaves says.

"We will risk a great deal to save a life, but we will risk very little if there is little to be saved. These are the decisions made by incident command, and we always try to err on the side of safety."

Reaves notes that a sometimes forgotten aspect of the role of volunteer firefighters is that they also have regular jobs. That reality came into play about 10 to 12 hours into the fire at Champion.

"By around 5 a.m. on Monday morning, we had a lot of guys who had to leave to go to their normal jobs," says Reaves. "They have to make a living and we understand that. It was at that point that we had to call for help from Lapeer, Arcadia Township and Brown City — to get us more water and manpower.

"Our guys who had been there all night were getting tired," Reaves adds. "Some of them have jobs where they can call in and use a sick day to stay at the fire scene. The fact is we fight the fire until the fire is over."

That commitment to duty is something all firefighters share, says Horton, who recalls being called out to a fire at the most inopportune times.

"I've been in the middle of my Thanksgiving dinner or just ready to head out to my relations for Christmas," Horton says. "One time I got called out when I was with my wife on our anniversary.

"When the pager goes off, you go to the fire," he says. "That's regardless of what is happening with your spouse or family at that moment. That can be tough sometimes, but we all do it."

Reaves admits it takes a special breed to become a firefighter. He refers to an old adage shared by those in the profession.

"Once a firefighter— always a firefighter," says Reaves. "This gets in our blood and in our hearts. Once you're in, it's hard to leave."

Horton admits that he's tried to leave the profession, but unsuccessfully.

"I couldn't do it," he says. "Besides, who else but a firefighter is gonna' get up in the middle of the night and go squirt water on a fire?"

Tom Wearing started at the Tri-City Times in 1989, covering the Village of Capac as a beat reporter. He later served stints as assistant editor and editor. Today, he covers Imlay City and Almont as a staff writer. He enjoys music and plays drums and sings with various musical groups in the Detroit Metropolitan area.
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