WAUKOMIS, Okla. — Editor's Note: News & Eagle summer intern Jessica Salmond did a ride-along with the volunteer firefighters of Waukomis Fire & Rescue on the busiest day of the year for all fire departments in Garfield County — the Fourth of July.
The evening of Thursday, July Fourth, began much the same for the Waukomis Fire Department as anyone else. The volunteers gathered together with their families, shared a meal and bantered easily. As dusk fell, the sounds of fireworks popped and crackled in the distance.
Fire Chief Clarence Maly told the men it was time to go. The men said goodbye to their wives and loaded up in the department trucks, heading down to the station to gear up and wait for the first call.
Down at the station, with their firefighter’s turnout gear in their hands, they waited. Easy banter, joshing and inside jokes were passed back and forth. But when the first call went out, it was a race to see who could pull their unit out of the station first.
“Whenever the call comes in, your adrenaline kicks in,” said Bobby Kokojan, one of the department’s lieutenants.
For about six years, Waukomis Fire Department has followed a tradition on Independence Day. Despite it being illegal to shoot off fireworks on state roads, many people drive out of town to the country to shoot off some of their own. Often the sparks drift and will catch a field or structure on fire. When the county is dealing with a lot of people shooting off fireworks, Waukomis has found that going to the station for the night helps reduce their response time and helps extinguish fires before they get too far out of control. Stations around the county can get dozens of calls on the night of the July Fourth; this year, Waukomis responded to eight fire calls.
“We don’t have to worry about anything but getting in the trucks and going,” Kokojan said.
Many other rural departments have adopted this same policy for Independence Day night, due to the use of fireworks.
“We see the need for it,” Maly said. By cutting down the department’s response time, they can reduce property damage and protect more cropland. After each fire, the department will regroup out on the road, fill up water tanks and wait for the next call.
“We’re out and about and ready to go at any time,” Maly said.
As one of the biggest rural departments, with 22 volunteers, Waukomis gets three to four calls on average during the week. Smaller departments depend on their help for bigger fires, and Waukomis operates with a “mutual aid” agreement to several other departments. For any structure or major fires, Waukomis automatically will respond to neighboring departments’ calls.
Spending the evening together is no hardship for the members at Waukomis. Many of them joined the department at the same time, and many of them were friends in high school, Kokojan said.
Maly has been with the Waukomis department for 28 years — longer than anyone else in Garfield County, he said. Many of the volunteers are men he has known in the community.
Maly’s been at the station longer than any of them: “They all call me Dad,” he said. He refers to the younger men affectionately as his “baby gorillas.”
“I’ve known them all their lives. They’re like my own kids,” Maly said.
Mason Hornberger, assistant training officer, said Maly is looked on as the father figure of the department because he’s been doing it so long.
“Whatever he says, we do,” Hornberger said. “He’s never asked us to do something he wouldn’t do.”
Kokojan said the sense of family has developed over the years as the men have learned to trust each other and prove themselves. Maly is not a “control freak,” Kokojan said, and allows everybody to say what’s on their mind. Leading by example, the group has learned to listen to one another and voice their thoughts and opinions. Several of the men went to high school together in Waukomis.
The firefighters spend a lot of time together at the station. All of them help with maintenance on trucks and participate in drills and training. At each month’s two fire meetings, the team tries to get in some training or practice old techniques, Hornberger said. The experiences the group has shared, both at fires and in the station, helps create a “close-knit” family.
“We’ve been through things that no one else will ever go through,” Hornberger said.
Darryl Beebe, a Garfield County Sheriff’s Office deputy and a volunteer firefighter for Waukomis, said the sense of camaraderie and the ability to give back to the community is why he’s a volunteer. It builds the community-like feeling among the group.
“There’s nothing anyone wouldn’t do for each other,” Beebe said.
“We’re all like brothers down there,” Kokojan said.
“Nobody thinks about us until they need us,” Maly said. Volunteer fire departments often are undervalued and over-looked. But those serving on them are there because they choose to be.
Kokojan chose to join to better the community.
“It’s been a great venture,” he said. “It’s a way to give back to the community.”
Maly said that firefighting “got in the blood.” He watched his great uncle, the assistant fire chief at the time, fight a house fire. He saw Maly watching and put him to work. Maly has “been there ever since.”
Hornberger’s desire to be a fireman “ran in his blood,” too — his father was a fireman.
“Ever since I was little, I wanted to be a fireman,” he said.
Beebe was a volunteer at the Pioneer-Skeleton Creek Fire Department before moving to Waukomis in 2008. Although he gets the occasional playful joke for being a deputy, he said everyone has a common interest: helping people and protecting property. He said the cross-training between being a deputy and firefighting helps him in responding to many situations.
“You get to see a bunch of stuff,” Beebe said.
When someone joins the Waukomis department, he or she is put on probation for a year. They have to complete 148 hours of firefighter training to officially be on the department.
Waukomis also participates in storm spotting and the Garfield County Task Force, a search-and-rescue team. The department tries to keep up with training in other areas such as HAZMAT and paramedical and keep training to “keep skills honed,” Hornberger said. Some volunteers are certified instructors, so they can teach their own classes.
“We can train ourselves right there at the station,” Maly said.
Thanks to the Garfield County rural fire sales tax first approved by voters in 1996, and which currently dedicates a tenth of a penny to funding all rural fire departments in the county, Waukomis has been able to keep up and get new equipment. The tax is scheduled to expire at the end of next year, and a vote on extending the tenth of a cent tax will go before county voters for approval in October.