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Columbus needing more volunteer firefighters

July 28, 2018

The need for firefighters has grown locally over the last few years while the amount available has dwindled, according to Columbus Fire Chief Dan Miller.

The Columbus Fire Department has only 15 paid employees and typically has five firefighters ready to go per shift, the chief noted.

“So any large emergency, or back-to-back emergencies, we need the support of our volunteer firefighters,” Miller said.

But that has become a problem as of late. Miller said the department had about 75 volunteer firefighters just two or three years ago, but some of the older members recently opted for retirement. That’s left the fairly new Columbus fire chief in a pinch as he only has about 50 volunteers.

“It very much is a need,” Miller said. “It’s something that’s needed in every small community. Our volunteers respond to every one of our building fires, car crashes, emergency medical calls, you name it. We had some people who retired - a lot of them are over 50 years old. We need some young members to come in, be trained and be able to serve the community into the foreseeable future.”

Miller is hoping to improve those numbers by better-equipping volunteers. After taking the helm of the department in August 2017, He decided to put together a Volunteer Firefighter Academy and made it a requirement for all future volunteers.

“We need volunteers, but just because they are volunteers, it doesn’t mean they don’t need training. So the fire department does need to provide them with training before sending them into emergency situations,” Miller said. “In the academy, we’re building a team, and a team has to have a playbook and be able to run the plays from the playbook. This academy gives them the training on the front end so they know what the expectations are.”

The latest academy is set to kick off the first Tuesday of September (Sept. 4). It will run for a few hours on Tuesday and Thursday nights over the course of three or four months, totaling 120 hours.

Applicants must be at least 19 years of age and be in fairly good physical health. All those considered must consent to a background check and medical screening, as well.

“The academy is not easy, firefighting is not easy,” Miller said. “We want to make sure they are prepared for the job and won’t get hurt.”

As such, the academy puts people through numerous mental and physical challenges that will test their strength and stamina, among other things. Students will ultimately complete Firefighter 1 and HAZMAT (hazardous materials) operation certification courses.

“We want to make sure our volunteers are capable of performing under pressure - the kind of pressure they’ll deal with when an actual emergency happens,” Miller said. “You undergo physical and mental stress on real calls, so we replicate that in the academy.”

Truck driver Ben Hellbusch is a 10-year volunteer fireman who has served Columbus the last few years. He said he decided to go through the academy despite being a volunteer before Miller joined the department because he respects the chief. But, he said, he also ended up learning a ton.

“Chief and his instructors are going to show you the proper fundamentals of being a firefighter,” said Hellbusch, who officially earned his Firefighter 1 and HAZMAT certifications on Monday. “I learned way more than what I thought I knew. For people who want to do it or join the department, this will broaden your knowledge. And we need volunteers because people are stepping away.”

Upon completing the academy, students must take a state certification test that challenges their written and practical skills. Then, they’re ready to serve their community.

Longtime Columbus Firefighter Dave Hogelin said he hopes residents will consider signing up.

“This is a good way to volunteer your time, and you learn a lot,” he said. “There are only five of us during a day, so when there is a large event, we can’t handle it ourselves.”

Miller echoed his sentiment.

“No. 1, it’s a really a rewarding and enjoyable lifestyle to be a firefighter, and It really becomes part of your day-to-day life,” he said, adding members become part of a fraternity of sorts and build good relationships with one another. “You can also make a difference in somebody’s day, who’s having a bad day.”

There will be an interview process for all academy applicants. Applications can be picked up at the Columbus Fire Station, 1459 26th Ave., or downloaded on the city’s website, www.columbusne.us. Additionally, there is a link to the application on the department’s Facebook page.

Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at matt.lindberg@lee.net.

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