New Year’s Eve allows many to pause, reflect on the year past, think about what’s ahead and, perhaps, lift a toast at home, at a party or in a bar.
For those who work in public safety, however, the 365th day of the year (or 366th in a leap year) is similar to other workdays. That generalization applies to Central Valley Fire District personnel on duty Monday night.
“It’s not much different from other days,” said Bruce Hennequin, Assistant Chief-Fire Marshal, as he briefed a Belgrade News reporter about to begin three hours of shadowing the crew at Station 1 on Main Street in Belgrade.
Fire Captain Jason Wheeler, who will celebrate 23 years with the department in April (18 years as a paid member after serving as a volunteer), commanded a contingent that included firefighters Jake Strickler and Stephen MacAdams and Victoria Wessel, a volunteer EMT (emergency medical technician).
Wheeler’s crew, working the department’s C shift, began work at 7 a.m. Monday, and their 24-hour stint ended at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, New Year’s Day. Central Valley firefighters work 72 hours per nine-day rotation: 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, then four days off.
MacAdams described the work relationship in a way that, unlike rhetoric about other organizations, didn’t sound cliched.
“We spend a third of the year with each other. We’re family,” he said.
MacAdams, who will mark his fifth year with the department in March, started preparing dinner for his colleagues in the firehouse kitchen about 7:15 p.m. The menu consisted of grilled strip steak, couscous and asparagus – a healthy contrast to some of the firefighters’ recent fare.
“The holidays were pretty good to us,” MacAdams said, laughing. “We’re trying to get back in shape.”
Just then, a medical call came in. Wheeler’s crew boarded the engine and, lights flashing and siren sounding, headed to a home on a side road south of Valley Center Road near Bozeman. Another Central Valley engine met the Belgrade contingent at the residence. By about 8:30, the incident was over, and the C shift individuals returned to the firehouse where MacAdams picked up where he left off on meal preparation.
The department logged nine calls for service in the 24-hour period from early Monday morning through early Tuesday morning, Hennequin said. That was a slight increase over the same period a year ago when the department responded to seven calls. The year before that, two calls came in during the New Year’s Eve timeframe, in 2015, the tally was six calls.
This year’s activity included two medical calls, the one east of Belgrade as well as an earlier one when the department responded to a residence in a mobile home park on the city’s east side. There, a person with a history of heart disease died before emergency help could reach him. That prompted the Gallatin County sheriff’s department, which coordinates the region’s chaplain program, to send a clergy representative to the scene.
Later Monday evening, Wheeler’s crew responded to a smoke odor call and then to two calls about unauthorized burning, probably bonfires, Hennequin said. Finally, at 11:30 p.m., a vehicle crash on West Valley Center Road sent two people to the hospital.
Hennequin, a 33-year veteran of public safety, started his career in North Carolina as a police officer before moving to a fire-safety role. He and his wife, a physician’s assistant, attended a conference at Big Sky in 2016, got hooked on Montana and moved to the Treasure State.
When firefighters report for duty, they follow an established routine, Wheeler said. It includes a rundown where the previous shift passes on all pertinent information about what’s happened to the incoming crew. Firefighters then conduct equipment checks, making sure “everything that’s supposed to move, moves, and everything that’s not supposed to move, doesn’t move.”
It takes about an hour for the equipment run through, after which firefighters participate in an hour of physical training. Training on varied subjects follows – that could include monitoring national and local weather to, for example, stay abreast of winter dangers such as extreme wind chill conditions. Firefighters carry warm gear and are generally not at risk, but they sometimes respond to stranded motorists whose vehicles have run out of gas and who lack recommended items for winter travel: extra blankets or sleeping bags plus emergency supplies of food and water.
Nationwide and in Montana, “a lot of people have made a great effort to make DUI more serious,” and advertising campaigns stress the danger to driving while under the influence, Hennequin said.
Still, drivers appear to lack common sense in challenging situations on the road.
“We still have crashes on the interstates caused by excessive speed,” he said. “Everybody thinks I must do (the speed limit) no matter what the weather.”
MacAdams, a 2010 graduate of Belgrade High School, left to get an associate’s degree in Helena. Engaged to get married, he said it was gratifying to get a job that allows him to live in and help protect the community where he grew up and where his parents also live.