Generations of volunteers serving the community

Are you willing to get up and leave a birthday party, dinner with friends, an anniversary celebration or even your child’s baptism? Can you make decisions on your own? Are you willing to put in endless hours of training and service to your community? If your answer is yes to “all of the above,” then you might make the cut to become a volunteer fireman on the Lovell Volunteer Fire Dept. team.

Russ Wilkerson, Jeremy Mangus and Mike Jameson consult with Oliver Mitchell about hot spots that may need to be put out at a special training exercise held on Monday night for Lovell Volunteer firefighters.

Up to 30 volunteers at a given time say “yes” to the questions above and dedicate a significant amount of time to service on the team, responding to everything from fires to carbon monoxide calls, gas leaks and extrication of accident victims from vehicles. Volunteers are trained to respond if homeland security is breached and they also are called upon to assist in some search and rescue situations. They provide important education in the schools and act as the epicenter of the spirit of volunteerism in the community.

The fire district was formed in 1950 by volunteers from the community and was the very first in the state. Prior to that, the town of Lovell had a small fire department that was also formed by volunteers in 1935. The district now serves a radius of nearly 600 miles.

The fire district is supported in large part by gas and oil money, in part from taxes collected from farmers in rural areas, fees paid by towns, local plants and grants. The organization has grown in leaps and bounds and is highly respected throughout the state.

Volunteers are selected after a rigorous screening process that includes being questioned by a panel of up to 10 people.

“We don’t put people on just because we need another body,” said Fire Captain Bob Mangus. “We’re looking for somebody who is willing to spend the time that it takes to be a part of this and somebody who is going to hopefully stay with us for quite a few years.”

“We’re looking for someone who can make a decision and doesn’t have to be told what to do,” added Fire Chief Jim Minchow.

The two act as leaders and have both been volunteers on the team for around 30 years.

It takes a village

Local plants support the operation by allowing their employees to leave their jobs to respond to a fire, and some of them even continue paying the employee while he is volunteering on a fire.

“The sugar factory and the bentonite plants especially are good about letting the guys respond to fires,” said Mangus. “If they didn’t do that, we couldn’t operate like we do. A lot of our volunteer workforce comes out of local plants, so it’s a big deal. So, if they didn’t let them go, we’d be hurting.”

“We also have a great fire board – Keith Grant, Chad Petrich and Mike Leonhardt – who support us all the way. That really helps a lot,” added Minchow.

Wives and other family members also make the sacrifice when their loved ones are called away from family gatherings to respond to a page from the fire hall.

“A lot of people say, ‘you guys are crazy’ because while everybody else is running out of the fire we’re running in,” said Mangus.

“I remember years ago we were in a riverbed fire that was just roaring and we were running in, while all of the animals, like pheasants and foxes, were running out of the fire,” added Minchow. “It did seem crazy at the time.”

The all-volunteer team is currently at 29 members. Most have served as many as 30 years or more. The volunteers receive a nominal stipend of $10 per fire.

“If you’re into this for the money, you’re into it for the wrong reason,” said Minchow. “People are here because they want to be. There’s, of course, the adrenalin rush of jumping on a fire truck and going to a fire but there is also the feeling of teamwork and the satisfaction of helping the community.”

Annual operating cost of the district is somewhere from $160,000 to $200,000. The cost is much higher during years when equipment is purchased. The district pays from $36,000 to $38,000 to use dispatch services in the area. Only one employee is paid to do the bookkeeping, facilities and maintenance, and even that person volunteers to go on calls.

In recent years, the district has expanded its services from 250 square miles to close to 600.

The gratification of helping others

“It makes you feel good when you walk away after cutting somebody out of a car, or saving their life, or saving their home,” said Minchow. “Whether it’s saving a house or saving a life, it’s all good.”

It’s this type of gratification, combined with an incredible sense of camaraderie, that makes positions on the team highly sought after.

“We usually try to wait until we have about four openings because it takes a lot of time to train them,” said Minchow. “Last time we had openings we had nine applicants for four positions.”

Kevin Jones and Lynn Hitz act as training officers. The district sets up realistic training exercises to prepare its men for very real situations. Two training exercises took place this past week alone, including one at the high school and another where Mangus actually set an old house on fire to give volunteers an opportunity to practice their skills while putting it out.

To apply, applicants must be healthy and at least 21 years of age. There’s a minimum of 100 hours of training in the first year and rookies work under supervision. In the first year, rookies are sent to fire school in either Riverton or Cody. According to Mangus, it costs the district about $3,000 to outfit one volunteer with special clothing and equipment.

“If they say they are only planning on staying for about four or five years we won’t even consider them,” said Mangus. “It’s just not worth all the training and expense.”

Although volunteers can’t respond to every single page, it is expected that they will respond to most.

“That’s why we have 30 guys on the team, because we hope 20 of them can get here,” said Mangus

Volunteers carry pagers, and it’s not uncommon for the first truck to hit the road within about a minute of the page.

The district has secured $2 million to $3 million in grants to purchase equipment and to expand the fire hall facility. Minchow and Mangus have also taken advantage of grant opportunities to help pay for training its volunteers.

“When we’re selecting these people (volunteers) we’re not just picking the everyday person,” said Mangus. “We want somebody who can actually make a decision on their own, because we can’t be there all the time and we can’t be in the fire sitting on their back shoulder telling them what to do. We can only train them well and hope they remember what we taught them.”

“In the last round of interviews, we were trying to select the best for the four positions that were available,” added Minchow.

“The biggest thing we face is the amount of time it takes to attend meetings, trainings, etc.,” said Mangus. “It’s not just about going out on fires. There’s a lot more to it.”

The amount of time a volunteer spends depends on the number of calls the district receives. According to Mangus, one year the department received 145 calls, while another year they received 90. Last year at this time in April the district was up to 15 calls; this year the district has already received more than 40. The average number of calls per year is about 100.

Education in schools

The district also provides valuable training in local schools and even pre-schools that can potentially save lives because the children are informed and know how to respond.

In one instance, a girl saved her family many years later as a result of the knowledge gained from one of those early school sessions right here in Lovell. The girl was the first in her family to detect a fire in the house. Using the information she learned from a program she attended as a Lovell Elementary School student, she was able to save her entire family by acting as a leader in their escape from their burning home.

“This is what it’s all about and I am really proud of this part of our work,” said Minchow, who received calls from other fire districts in the state asking about the program the girl went through as a child.

Barbeques, breakfast and food baskets

The Fire Hall facility is used by many other organizations for meetings and blood drives, and the volunteers provide other services to the community.

Most of the volunteers stick with the crew for many years, and there is very little turnover. It’s not at all uncommon for sons and even grandsons to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers.

Most of the volunteers are close friends and the camaraderie of the crew is second to none.

Jeremy Mangus is following in the footsteps of his father Bob. Jeremy has been on the crew for about a year now. Part of the decision to join was that his father inspired him, part of it was for the “pure adrenalin rush” and part of it was a genuine desire to serve his community.

Greg Rael is a rookie fireman. He joined the crew a month ago at the encouragement of friends who are also crew members.

“I like the idea of serving the community,” said Rael. “I have a lot of friends on the crew and it’s fun to be a part of this.”

Although he has gone out on quite a few fire calls already, Rael mostly observes while he learns from the more experienced members.

“I’ve learned a lot on every call,” said Rael. “ Every call has been like a cram session. Most of all, I’ve learned to follow directions.”

Rael is learning to drive the trucks, to use the hoses and other equipment. He will attend fire school in Cody in the near future. He loves it when he gets a call and is disappointed if he doesn’t make it on a truck.

“We try to get our new guys out to as many calls as we can, so they can learn by doing,” said Mangus. “That’s where you get your real training, when you’re out on a fire.”

A single rookie is put on a truck with others who are very experienced.

“Your older firemen, who have been on the crew for a while, tutor these young guys as they are going to the fire,” explained Mangus. “We depend on those guys not to put rookies in a situation that they shouldn’t be in. Someday those rookies will have enough experience to be the ones who teach other rookies.”

“The camaraderie, the ability to serve and to give back to the community is what it’s all about for me,” said Rael. “It’s a great learning experience, too.”

Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series on volunteerism in the community. Part 2 will feature volunteers from other organizations in the community. Suggestions are welcome, contact Patti at lcnews@tctwest.net or call the Chronicle at 548-2217, if you would like to recommend a person or organization to be included in the article.

By Patti Carpenter

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