By Stephanie Malench
On September 19, a crew of four area firefighters returned from their aid mission to Hurricane Ida ravaged Louisiana after 10 days helping the Natalbany Fire Department (NFD), which covers the communities of Tickfaw and Natalbany in the Tangipahoa Parish.
Michael Dosch, Steve Clayton, Logan VanHatten, and Steve Bartlett made the 16-hour drive down on September 7, stopping in Marion to be sworn in as Illinois Emergency Management Agency first responders as part of a strike team that included 15 engine companies, five fire engines, four fire chief vehicles, and 60 staff from across the state of Illinois.
The Illinois Strike Team filled in as members of the NFD, responding to structure fires, medical calls, field fires, and car crashes. Many of the regular firefighters were overworked and had been on duty for six, 24-hours shifts in a row when the strike team arrived. The immediate emergencies caused by the hurricane were already over with.
The teams also completed community service checks as the waters began to rise, but did not need to do any water rescues. The only fatalities were two cows that were involved in a collision with two cars. Another cow was injured.
Captain Dosch, who lives outside of Murphysboro and has been a firefighter for 20 years, said he was “pleasantly surprised with the professionalism of the department they worked with”. Dosch served as a Technical Rescue Member on the engine from Highland and served with volunteer firefighter Captain Steve Bartlett from Marine.
Bartlett found the trip “fun, interesting, and a good experience”. Being a volunteer firefighter, Bartlett found staying at the fire station and being on-call 24/7 the most different from his regular routine. This was Bartlett’s first trip to Louisiana and his main reaction was that it stinks, and attributes the smell to the fact that even during the best of times, it is wet all the time.
An additional role that Bartlett assisted with on the trip was filling out the Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) paperwork each morning, which included a log of the call volume and daily activities from the day before.
Bartlett was quick to thank his employer, Bradford National Bank for giving him the time off to take the trip, as well as his wife Stephanie for agreeing to let him go. He also encourages other firefighters to volunteers for such trips when the opportunity arises, saying the team was treated well the entire trip.
The Highland Fire Department sent several pieces of equipment, but two employees.
Captain Clayton, a 33-year veteran of the department, served as a firefighter on the rescue truck. The biggest learning experiences for him were being outside his comfort zone and seeing the different types of apparatus used.
Because NFD covers a poorer, more rural area than Highland, water has to be trucked in to the scene and dump tanks set up to pull the water back out from.
Clayton also credited NFD Acting Fire Chief Donnie Starkey with being a mentor to him as far as management style and leadership skills.
“It was a very fulfilling opportunity” Clayton said. Like Bartlett, he would recommend the experience to any firefighter that can take the time to help..
The last member of the local team was Highland firefighter/EMT Logan VonHatten, who has been with the department for seven years.
VonHatten said the most beneficial part of the experience for him was working as part of a large scale command and answering the higher call volume due to the storm.
Highland Fire Chief Brian Wilson, who had responded as part of the local strike team post-Katrina was responsible for lining everything up for the local team to participate, telling his employees that went it was a “once in a career opportunity” and was honored to be able to help again, even though he could not go himself this time.