The Journey

Volunteers drop everything in order to help
By Katy Chapin

Davenport Project

Eugene Johnson is manager of the Wheatland Bank's Davenport branch, but once his pager sounds, he becomes the Davenport volunteer fire chief.

At the fire call, Davenport's 25 volunteer firefighters dash down Morgan Street from throughout the town, some ripping off their ties as they go.

The firefighters' commitment to protecting their community is matched only by the community's commitment toward supporting its local fire department. City work-crew bosses and hardware-store managers, even grocery-store customers, know that on occasion these volunteers must leave work without a moment's notice. When the bell sounds, everyone in the community knows it could be his or her own house in need of rescue.

"The community really respects and encourages the fire crew. We have a lot of participation," Johnson said.

Davenport has been running a successful volunteer fire department for more than 100 years. Firefighters have gone from leading horse-drawn carts to driving gas-powered trucks that can pump 1,000 gallons of water per minute. That's all while working to build a stronger sense of community within this small town. In this city of 1,700 people, every fire call means helping a customer, neighbor, or friend.

"When you live in a small town, everything is connected," Johnson said. "If someone's wheat crop burns down, I will be helping him later at the bank."

Johnson began as a firefighter 32 years ago because he wanted to give back to his community. After building a career, raising a family, and immersing himself in the Davenport community, he jumped at the chance to further his involvement. As fire chief, Johnson says that he has never had a problem finding enough people to volunteer. Recruits frequently ask how they can get involved.

Brian Buck saw an advertisement for the fire department in the Davenport Times five years ago. His day job is at the McGregor Company, but one of his greatest passions is fighting fires.

"When you're dealing with wildfires, it can get pretty exciting," Buck said. "It can be a challenge keeping track of what you're doing, staying out of harm's way and still trying to fight the fire."

All medical calls are dispatched to the Lincoln County Hospital, where a separate team of volunteers is responsible for responding. Occasionally, the Davenport Fire Department also will be dispatched to help lend manpower and support. Primarily, the fire department is responsible for house fires and wildfires in forests and wheat fields. The summer is the department's busy time, with an average of one call each month. During winter, that number drops to two or three calls for the entire season.

Every volunteer is required to carry a pager at all times. When the pager comes to life, each volunteer must get to the station if all possible. The crew's time in leaving the station averages five minutes after receiving a call. Not only are the firefighters required to drop everything once the bell sounds, but the rest of the community must pick up where the volunteers left off. When Johnson leaves the bank, fellow employees take over his customers. It may take some time before he returns. Once the call is done, they all work together to clean up uniforms and restock the truck. Two city work-crew members, who also serve as volunteers, are given time from their regular jobs each Friday for routine maintenance of the fire trucks and the station.

Johnson stresses to his fellow firefighters that this job is about making a commitment to serve the community.

"If you're in it for the money, don't even bother," he said.