Firefighters: Heroes and friends


Randy Riley - Contributing columnist



Like many little boys, my grandson, Clayton, loves superheroes.

He has most of the action figures fashioned after the Marvel and DC Comics superheroes: Ironman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Aqua Man, Black Panther, Black Widow and many more.

He loves his superhero action figures. He plays with them and he even sleeps with them.

But, there’s one superhero that he’s missing. There is one superhero that has not yet been made into an action figure.

It’s the Firefighter.

Debbie and I traveled through California a few weeks ago. While we were there, wildfires seemed to break out everywhere.

The biggest fire, the Carr Fire, broke out near the city of Redding. It destroyed forests, entire communities and people’s lives.

Over 125,000 acres were burned. Over 500 homes were lost. People died.

Even as I write this column, that fire is not completely under control.

During this fire, a grandmother and two of her grandchildren died while sheltering together in a closet.

In one heartbreaking interview, a gray-bearded man described his telephone conversation with his grandson. With his cellphone in hand, the boy cried for help as he described the fire burning through the walls and the door.

His last words to his grandfather were, “I’m sorry, Grandpa. We should have left.”

Firefighters found him with the cellphone still in his hand.

Thousands of wildland firefighters throughout the west are still involved in fighting dozens of wildfires. Tragically, some of the firefighters have also died.

It took a superhuman effort for the firefighters just to get to the fires.

There was no relief from the heat. A picture that circulated in California showed five firefighters who had collapsed in an empty lot on the bare dirt. They could not make it to a shelter or even a bed. Total exhaustion caused them to fall in their tracks and lapse into a kind of sleep — not a restful sleep, but the sleep that comes from sheer exhaustion.

A short time later they were back on the fire-line, once more putting their lives at risk.

They are superheroes.

When I first started working at CMH, one of my duties was teaching resuscitation techniques and airway management to EMTs and firefighters.

In 1987, besides my duties as the director of respiratory therapy, I was appointed the EMS coordinator for the hospital.

In those positions, and working in the emergency department, I got to know almost every firefighter in Clinton County. What a great group of people.

After a few years as EMS coordinator, I started to volunteer as an EMT with the Port William Life Squad. Most of the emergency calls I responded to involved motor vehicle crashes on I-71.

The fire department always responded to those crashes. The firefighters would focus on extrication of the victim, while EMS would focus on emergency treatment and victim care.

But, the firefighter would also focus on keeping the EMTs safe from on-coming traffic.

Also, whenever the firefighters would respond to a structure fire, the life squad would respond, just in case one of the firefighters might sustain injury.

One wintery morning, the Port William Fire Department was called to a house fire on Speers Road. Dispatch called it out as a “working house fire”, meaning the main structure was involved.

It was not going to be an easy fire to fight. The first Port William firefighter on the scene called for mutual aid. Immediately, dispatch called the Wilmington Fire Department to provide Port William with help.

Full-time and part-time firefighters from Wilmington were immediately on their way to Speers Road.

Firefighters with heavy air packs, full face masks, Nomex hoods, helmets, gloves and full bunker gear were in and out of the house. They could not get to the basement where they thought the resident, an elderly woman, had died.

The firefighters would not stop looking for her. They would not give up.

Firefighters don’t give up.

That day, as an EMT, I could only watch, help pull hoses, check on the firefighters and stay out of their way.

But that day, I had the honor of watching some of the finest firefighters in Clinton County.

Mike Mason, PWFD Chief, called the shots. Men like Jay Wiswell, John O’Rourke and Don Maher from Wilmington wouldn’t stop until the fire was out.

With the fire finally under control, Roger King, Port William firefighter, brought in his own backhoe and started removing debris. He carefully dug into the remains of the home until the victim was finally found. No one left until the job was complete.

It was a long, long day for everyone, but no one gave up.

Firefighters don’t give up.

Our good friend, Jay Wiswell, former assistant chief of the Wilmington Fire Department, just passed away a few weeks ago.

Jay will be missed greatly, and he will be remembered with great admiration.

Not only was Jay an amazing firefighter, he was a busy instructor. In the 1980s, Jay probably taught well over half of all the firefighters in Clinton County and the surrounding area.

Because of the excellence of the local fire departments and dozens of firefighters in the Clinton County area, this area is blessed to have excellent protection – provided by many, many outstanding firefighters.

I’m going to keep my eyes open for a superhero action figure for Clayton.

I want it to have plenty of bunker gear. I want it to represent all firefighters.

I’ll just bet that superhero-action-figure will look something like Jay Wiswell.

Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

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Randy Riley

Contributing columnist