The Campbell County Fire Department, led by newly-named Fire Chief Jeff Bender, serves the Gillette, Rozet, and Wright areas. The department is made up of both full-time and part-time volunteer firefighters who do way more than simply put fires out. This is the first piece in a three-part series that follows these brave, local heroes.
The alarm bell rang loudly as the Campbell County firefighters sprang into action after getting a call from dispatch about a two-car collision on East Warlow Drive. The goal, according to CCFD Captain Kate Eishceid, is to get out of the door in under two minutes. With headphones on to communicate, the fire engine and rescue truck ripped down Highway 14-16 with sirens and lights blaring.
Once on scene, the crew flew out of the trucks and ran over to the two vehicles as EMS and Gillette police arrived. After ascertaining there were no injuries, the crew bent a fender back in place using a large axe-like tool. With that, their job was done.
Just one call in an otherwise busy day.
The Campbell County firefighters serve a 5,000-square mile area that includes the City of Gillette and neighboring towns of Wright and Rozet. The crews are trained and responsible for medical, rescue, and hazmat emergencies, which requires lots of in-house trainings to keep their skills well-honed for all situations.
That day, the firefighters practiced jumping out of windows headfirst and flipping right to improve ladder descending times. Some training exercises are designed for no vision perception, so firefighters get used to relying on their senses when crawling low in a fire or battling billowy clouds of smoke.
“It’s not just dark, that smoke has heat to it,” Eishceid said. “If you breathe any of it, not only is one breath going to really do some harm to you, two breaths might be all you get.”
The firefighters also rely heavily on their ears, Eishceid explained, to decipher many sounds, like listening to the radio and talking to their partner, while still moving and doing the job at hand.
Until her first fire, Eishceid didn’t understand the ways in which her other senses came alive to account for the temporary loss of vision and smell due to smoke.
“You don’t have time to gather things. These houses now burn really, really fast,” she said. “You only have around three minutes or less to get out because the smoke [from all of the unnatural products] that burn turns very dark and builds down to the floor very fast.”
The firefighters are trained to be pretty specialized, 30-plus year veteran firefighter Mike Thomas said, whether that be a trench rescue, a hazmat emergency or extricating passengers from smashed vehicles. The process is dependent on the emergency, including high- and low-angle rescues like high-rise buildings or mine silos. Solving problems on the fly is part of the fun for Thomas, who has been with the department since 1988.
Another big part of their job is helping teach kids how to navigate emergency fire situations. For about six weeks each year, the department teaches fire safety to around 120 kindergartens and first graders, with active demonstrations and role playing.
“We teach them what fire is and what causes it. Kids don’t have that background,” Eishceid said. “We tell them the whys and the whats. We show them toys versus tools, things you should play with, things you shouldn’t touch, and why you shouldn’t touch them.”
The fire crew also teaches children to get low and get out of the house or structure if there is a fire. Using a mock set, firefighters set off the alarm and have the kids practice rolling out of bed and crawling to the door to feel for the door. If it’s hot, the child must then crawl over to the window and either get out or yell for help, Eishceid explained.
These demonstrations also allow children to see a fully suited-up firefighter, so they won’t be afraid should an emergency situation actually occur.
For firefighter Bayelee Burton, working with kids is one of the best aspects of the job. He’s been with the department for two-and-a-half years. He’d studied to be a special education teacher in college, and now, he likes being able to teach children on the job.
Firefighter Waycey Waller said that he had wanted to be a firefighter since he was a child. He’s been on the job for 10 years now.
John Sullivan also felt this calling. “We’re here to serve,” he said.
When asked how being involved and seeing people in their weakest moments impact him, Sullivan said, “It’s why we do what we do, it’s the reason why we are here.”
That said, it can also be wearing. Part of staying healthy is learning to decompress Thomas said.
“A lot of it, of course, is spending time with family and friends and being around the people that you’re happy with,” he said. “And hunting and fishing, being out in the outdoors and being alone sometimes.”
Along with responding to fires, car accidents, and any number of rescue situations, the firefighters also help with minor emergencies such as rescuing kitchens. No, it isn’t just a stereotype. While firefighters don’t typically climb trees to rescue kittens, because they know they will come down, Eishceid noted, they have rescued them out of trees, car engines, and drainage pipes and wherever else they may be hiding.
All in a day’s work.