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Rapid City becomes destination for volunteer firefighter symposium

Rachel Buczynski
National Volunteer Firefighter Council
Charlie Kludt presents to firefighters at the Regional Wildland Symposium

Dozens of volunteer firefighters learned tricks-of-the-trade from colleagues across the nation at the symposium. They covered subjects ranging from recruitment to best practices, while some say communication can be a firefighters most valuable asset.

Chris Baker is a senior public safety advisor with the California-based First Responder Network Authority. He presented to the group on the first day.

“Support for disasters like tornadoes when comms get taken out, the fiber, the microwaves and the power, and bringing in deployable cell sites within a certain amount of time too that is mandated in the statutory contract out there,” Baker said.

The symposium, filled with classroom sessions like these, was held at the Black Hills State University Rapid City campus.

Charlie Kludt, who works with both the South Dakota Firefighters Association and the National Volunteer Fire Council, said there’s no better place to host the event.

“As we put in for this, we thought Rapid City was going to be ideal because you stand out here in the parking lot, you look to the west and you see mountains and trees and forest," Kludt said. "You look to the east, and you see wide open plains of the range and farmland. They’re both wildfires, but everybody thinks of forests and trees when they think of wildland fires.”

Kludt said it’s a perfect opportunity for volunteers to learn from voices you wouldn’t normally hear.

“We’ve got people from 24 states that came to the Black Hills, as far away as Maine – they drove here from Maine to get here for this symposium to realize this is something that affects all the states," Kludt said. "It’s just that people only see it as forests and trees and mountains.”

Another attendee was Paul Acosta with the Colorado State Firefighters Association. He said while no two fires are alike there are lessons to be learned from each.

“When you’re in Colorado you have so much forest land that when it burns it burns across the top of the trees and it crowns over, and it causes mass destruction, and it can take a week or two to happen," Acosta said. "Where, here on the plains when we fight a fire, I saw the same style of fire – 48,000 acres – burn in less than 24 hours because we’re in such an open area.”

Acosta said while all firefighters deserve recognition, volunteer departments are in desperate need of public support.

“People don’t realize we’re a dying breed, there’s so many people that don’t realize departments need help," Acosta said. "70% of volunteer firefighters is what protects the United States, the other 30% is paid guys. Go visit their departments and learn who they are and try to be a part of the program. Even if you can’t help on a call maybe you can help with reports. There is so many things you can help us out with.”

One group from Woolwich, Maine drove four days to the Black Hills for the symposium. One of the firefighters, Dorothy McCarren said the drive was worth learning potentially lifesaving skills.

“It’s why a lot of people join up - they want to help," McCarren said. "I’m happy to be out there, and I enjoy being out in nature, so I don’t mind camping on a mountain or digging a little dirt just so maybe somebody else can enjoy it down the line too.”

McCarren said many firefighters feel a sense of obligation to their community. She reflected on the value of being present in the larger firefighting fraternity.

“If you’re coming from all these different communities you gotta be able to work together - you’ve gotta be on the same page," McCarren said. "So that brotherhood really helps stay as a good influence to meet with other people, work with other people, and get outside of yourself.”

Another firefighter from Maine is Frank Petrulli. He said despite the trouble recruiting - volunteers especially - its important prospective firefighters understand the job.

“I know it’s an adventure, it’s an adrenaline rush, especially for a young man or gal who wants to get into it. Do it for the right reasons," Petrulli said. "Keep your head about you and be careful, but you only live once so go for it. You don’t want to regret it when you’re in a nursing home drooling tapioca out the side of your mouth saying ‘boy, I wish I did this sixty, seventy years ago.’ Don’t be that person. If you feel like you want to do it, do it.”

Despite the challenges facing fire departments across the nation, many firefighters say they still have the original passion for their work and say they wouldn’t trade their jobs for the world.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering education, healthcare, arts and culture.