By Mallory Sherwood, Managing Editor
All John Leedy could see as he pulled the fire truck to the scene were two mangled vehicles. The sun had nearly set that late winter afternoon, and a light drizzle had begun to fall as traffic came to a standstill on Interstate 20 near Clyde.
Leedy, a lieutenant fire officer with the Potosi Volunteer Fire Department, jumped out, ran toward the most damaged vehicle and found a woman trapped inside. After he and a partner used the Jaws of Life to free her, he noticed a baby bottle, teddy bear and blanket crumpled on the floorboard of the car.
“I immediately realized that there had to be an infant in the car still,” he said. “The car was crushed beyond recognition, you couldn’t tell where the radio would have gone; I didn’t know how a baby would survive.”
In the backseat in a crushed car seat carrier, Leedy found an infant boy who was injured but still alive.
“I was able to pull that baby out of the car, and it was a good moment to realize I had just saved this child’s life,” he said.
Saving a life is common for Leedy, a volunteer firefighter for three years. The senior youth and family ministry major from The Woodlands found a new calling in life when a friend invited him to drive to Potosi one evening to apply as a volunteer.
“I had nothing better to do that night, so I was excited to go and see what a fire station is like,” Leedy said. “I ended up applying because it seemed interesting.”
His hobby of fighting fires, attending to accident victims and saving lives soon became a passion.
“I fell in love with working as a firefighter because I enjoy helping others,” he said. “If you would have told me freshman year I would be doing this, I would have laughed in your face. I think God led me into this position.”
Matt Harris joined his friend Leedy a year and a half later on the volunteer fire department.
“I guess I started partly because all guys want to be a firefighter when they grow up,” Harris said. “John is also one of my best friends and he has been telling me about it for a while now.”
The two men and Chris Rhodes, senior Christian ministry major from Lovington, N.M, work together as friends and brothers at the station, a large metal barn Taylor County also uses for storage.
The department owns a fire engine, two tankers that transport the water and hoses needed to fight any kind of fire and two brush trucks used for off-road accidents.
The three men were trained by more than 25 senior firefighters during a three-month period. To finish their training, they had to complete a checklist of skills. Leedy said 90 percent of the training rookie firefighters receive is from senior firefighters who pass on information and knowledge through their experiences in the past.
He said because it is not an paid fire department, they are not required to train through an academy.
Leedy said the skills they learn include basic firefighting skills needed for structural and wild land fires; fire science, firefighter safety, emergency driving, victim and vehicle rescue and extrication, which includes Jaws of Life training, search and rescue and Sky Warn storm spotting.
Rookies take weekend classes offered through regional academies for the other part of the training, he said, and can also train to become an emergency medical technician.
During Leedy’s sophomore year, he went to at 15-week emergency medical school to become a certified emergency medical technician. He said it was the hardest semester he’s had while at college because of the hectic schedule.
Leedy sat through classes all day, went to work and then went to Abilene Regional Hospital to complete 12-hour emergency room shifts so he could complete his 120-hour clinical rotation needed to complete training.
He worked with the fire department at a controlled burn room during his weekend courses and learned how to put out fires quickly. He said the department would set a house on fire, the rookies would extinguish it, and then they would set it on fire again.
Leedy said he quickly learned how important it is to be physically fit in order to save lives because of all the equipment and gear they had to wear.
“We wore all of this gear and then carried at least 20 pounds of equipment in our pockets and a compressed air tank on our back while we lugged 50 feet of fire hose around,” he said. “There isn’t required physical training, but there is rigorous physical activity you have to be prepared for while on scene.”
Preparation is only one aspect of a firefighter’s job. Another is safety of all people involved, he said.
“Accident scenes are unpredictable,” he said. “You have to look for the hazards and realize that getting the patients out safely is your first priority. You have to make contact with them and become their voice of peace.
“Then you turn around and yell as loud as you can for help, or certain equipment, and then turn around and comfort them again. You just keep telling them, ‘We’re here to help you; we’re going to get you out of here. You have to trust us.'”
Saving lives has its benefits besides the natural high of completing a job well, he said. The firefighters also join a brotherhood when they join the volunteer fire department.
In fact, three of Leedy’s co-workers also will serve as groomsmen in his wedding in June.
“So many times I put my life on the line,” he said, “but I know I have my brothers watching out for me. There is a tremendous bond forged when you work together to save lives.”
Harris, senior marketing major from Abilene, agreed.
“On the serious side, I love the brotherhood that is formed at the department,” he said. Harris, like Leedy, will have four other firefighters in his wedding in May. “On the fun side, it’s cool to get to drive a fire truck with the lights flashing and sirens blaring. Just last week I had some little kids come ask me for my autograph.”
Working the system
Each volunteer carries a scanner wherever he goes, Leedy said. When an emergency arises, a dispatcher comes over the scanner and informs everyone of the situation and where it is occuring. Leedy said the dispatcher calls for all able firefighters to come during a major emergency, and that he’ll leave from anywhere to go.
“Since we are a volunteer department, we’re not required to respond,” he said. “The thing is though, we realize that someone has to go. We’re volunteers so that we can respond. I’ve been called to go to a medical emergency in the middle of the night, while I was watching TV or eating dinner with my fiance. It’s what we do.”
He said the volunteer fire department is called whenever an emergency outside the Abilene city limits arises. For anything in the city limits, Abilene Fire Department arrives.
That doesn’t mean the two don’t work together, he said. He also said the departments know that to get the job done, all departments and resources have to work together.
Putting aside fears
No matter who arrives on scene, all people work together to help others.
“When you arrive to a scene,” Harris said, “You don’t think about what you’re scared of; you just do your job to the best of your ability.”
For Harris, his scariest encounter was last July when the department was called to a brush fire.
“I first saw the fire when we were 15 miles away,” he said. “It appeared that the fire was small just on the horizon. The scary part was that we kept getting closer and the fire wasn’t getting any smaller; all I could see was a huge plume of smoke in the sky.”
When the team arrived to the fire, he said they had to be cautious because the 600-acre fire had broken out above a field of pipeline.
“If there had been a leak anywhere, the whole area would have gone up in an explosion,” Harris said.
The dangers of his job made Harris’ family members nervous at first, but he said now they love the fact that he is a firefighter.
Leedy, too, said his family has supported of his decision to be on the volunteer fire department, especially his fiancee Krystal Krieg, senior Christian ministry major from Plano.
“I have to commend Krystal because she has to be very brave when I leave sometimes,” he said. “A lot of times I leave for a fire, and I don’t know what could happen. I know that she is praying and thinking of me while I’m gone. I am very thankful.”
Harris said he enjoys his job because it is exciting, and something is always happening where he can learn.
He said the department receives three to four calls a week for an emergency. Whether it is an accident or grass fire, Harris said he is one of the people who are willing to leave class.
“Whether it’s putting out a fire, rewiring a truck or replacing things, we learn a lot of pretty good life skills,” he said.
For Leedy and Harris, the life skills they learn while at work are something they want to continue, no matter where they live.
“My goal is anywhere I live to find a close volunteer fire department and continue working and training,” Harris said.