A lot can happen in 24 hours – car accidents, fires, medical emergencies, mass casualty incidents, just to name a few.
But for firefighters in this region, each of these scenarios comes with the job.
Firefighters and paramedics often see people on the worst possible day of their lives - a fact of life for firefighters that provides many emotional peaks and valleys on any given day.
But for Valparaiso firefighter and paramedic Terry Morgan, the rewards outweigh the low points.
“The No. 1 reason I pursued this is to be able to help people,” he said. “The days I like are when you have a good call – the days when we can make a difference in someone’s life.”
Firefighting is a profession that has existed as long as civilizations have, but in fire department environments nowadays, duties and requirements have increased in response to the growing needs of the community.
Most departments in the region require their firefighters to be trained at the Emergency Medical Technician level, and some even require all firefighters, once hired, to become licensed paramedics.
“Here at Schererville, we provide Advanced Life Support care, so a lot of our employees are licensed paramedics, including myself,” said Capt. Nick Fanelli, who has been with the Schererville Fire Department since 2005. “These credentials are just the foundation for our career. There are numerous additional specialized courses that we attend in order to provide the best service for our community.”
Routine training is a necessity – not only to keep skills fresh, but also prepare first responders for any situation they may face, Morgan said.
Lt. Chris Bednarek, a training officer for the Chicago Heights Fire Department, said he has been in the fire service for 20 years, and still takes courses to keep up to date with recent technological advances and training practices. It’s a necessity, he says, to maintain a career in the fire service and ultimately provide critical services to the community.
“Firefighters and paramedics care about the people in the community they serve – they genuinely want to help others,” he said.
While day-to-day operations can vary per department, they often include everything from responding to incidents to house chores, training and vehicle and equipment maintenance.
This past week in particular, several departments conducted outreach efforts as part of Fire Prevention Week – sending firefighters to local schools and giving fire safety presentations.
“We are fortunate also that our town as the Tri-Town Safety Village that teaches fire safety,” Fanelli said. “A lot of our firefighters are instructors.”
Every day on the job is different – an aspect of firefighting Bednarek says he enjoys.
“There are several calls I have responded to that stick out, all for different reasons,” he said. “Some were traumatic accidents, industrial accident calls where the floor gave way just ahead of my crew, and some fire investigations that were particularly weird or gross.”
Each firefighter faces his or her own set of challenges when responding to these incidents – whether it’s phobias they must overcome or the toll the profession takes physically and emotionally.
“Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and that works for our department,” said Eileen Kelly, a firefighter and paramedic with Chicago Heights.
Although she works in a traditionally male-dominated field, she says her biggest challenge is overcoming her shorter height.
“I’m not treated as an outcast because I am female,” she said. “If you can physically do the job, it doesn’t matter what gender you are.”
Kelly grew up around the firefighting profession – her father now a retired chief from Chicago.
“I grew up loving everything about the firehouse and saw how happy it made my dad to work as a paramedic,” she said.
In fact, the hardest aspect about firefighting often has nothing to do with the job itself.
Most departments operate on a 24 hours on, 48 off schedule, with rotating shifts – a challenge when balancing family time with work.
“As a firefighter, you have to have a good family support system at home,” Morgan said.
The most difficult aspects of the job involve what they miss while at the station.
“I think most firefighters would agree one of the hardest parts of the job is being away from your family for 24 hours at a time,” Bednarek said. “We miss a lot of holidays, birthdays and school programs.”
But these firefighters say the sacrifice of family time is worth it because they are able to make a difference in so many lives. Besides their daily roles as first responders, several department personnel also participate and contribute to a number of fundraisers each year, such as the Hoosier Burn Camp for kids. They add their doors are always open.
“I love when kids stop by the station to see the fire trucks,” Fanelli said. “No matter how tough of a day we may be experiencing, nothing is better than seeing the smile on the face of the kids that visit.”