Three Preston men reflect on time spent as emergency responders
Wednesday, July 24, 2013 3:20 AM
They were always there when others needed them.
Kevin Ostern, Jerry Olson and Mike Woellert had a combined 70 years of service on the Preston Fire Department and Ambulance Service before recently retiring. ANTON ADAMEK/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP
For a combined 70 years, Preston residents Kevin Ostern, Mike Woellert and Jerry Olson have served the city of Preston and surrounding rural areas in emergency response. Ostern was on the ambulance service for 30 years and also served as its director in 2010. Both Woellert and Olson served on the fire department for 20 years each and had put in almost two years on the ambulance service as well. For each of them, it seemed like the right time to retire and move away from something they had based much of their lives around.
All three men shared how they became interested in volunteering. Ostern, 55, remembered joining the Preston Emergency Medical Service (EMS) when he was 22. At that time, several members had retired, leaving a few spots open.
Having grown up in Preston his entire life, Ostern said, "I wanted to give back to the community. It was a pretty easy fit." Not so easy was the time requirement to become an emergency medical technician (EMT). An 81-hour course was mandatory in those days. Ostern pointed out the time spent to become certified today is closer to 160 hours.
For Woellert and Olson, the decision to join the fire department wasn't a big deal because they knew each other and many already on the department. Olson, 50, said, "We grew up together and knew each other. He said he was applying so I did it, too."
Woellert, also 50, said he drew an influence to be on the department from his dad, Loren, who served for 21 years. "I grew up around it," Woellert said. "I used to watch him run and take off as a kid."
Each planned on staying dedicated to the service from the start. "Everyone that started back then finished the class," Ostern claimed. He continued by saying there was a high burnout rate with people usually leaving the EMS after six years. Ostern said he gained a lot of strength and knowledge in learning from the veterans. When he started, there were 24 EMTs on the service. "There was always such a demand, you hated to quit," Ostern said, explaining why he never felt like he should leave.
Woellert joked that 20 years on the fire department was the longest he has been doing anything, besides being married. "I enjoyed it. It makes you feel good that you are doing something to help people out," he remarked. Being able to serve alongside and tease Olson was also an added benefit.
Olson said he had initially planned to serve until he was 55 and thought he would make it. "I got to 20 years and thought that was good enough," he admitted.
Woellert said he didn't think he would ever quit until he reached the mandatory retirement age of 55. "When I got on, I knew I wanted to be on the service," he said. All three men agreed they knew it was time for them to call it quits when they did.
There are various reasons why someone will leave emergency response service. The time required is one of them. "You really need your sleep at night," said Ostern.
Since he worked out of town during the day, Ostern wasn't able to pick up shifts until the evening. He would also serve weekends, sacrificing his own down time to serve.
Olson and Woellert also had to deal with the spontaneous nature of serving on the fire department. Calls could come in at all hours of the day. Both departments also required annual additional training and refreshers.
There is also a significant amount of stress involved with responding to calls. Ostern said there were the bad accidents when members of families didn't survive. "Most things happen so fast, you don't have time to think about it," he said.
Olson agreed saying it was always tough responding to fires where there were people he knew. "I didn't give any thought to that when I applied to get on," he stated.
After the department would respond to a fire or accident, the crew would return to the fire station, share a meal and just talk. Olson said the department's camaraderie strengthened through those experiences. Veterans would help the young guys deal with a tough emergency and learn from it.
The stressful and sometimes tiring nature of being on the fire and ambulance crews wasn't just given to the three men, but to their families as well.
"The whole family needs to be willing to commit," explained Ostern. "Your spouse and children have to know that you are obligated to serving."
This obligation never ceases, even during family events. "I'm fortunate I didn't miss too much," Woellert added, saying his wife Melissa, was great with taking care of their kids when he needed to leave for a fire. Olson said his family appreciated him being on the department and setting an example of service.
Despite the sacrifices, the rewards are great. "The best is getting grandma to the hospital and making her feel better," shared Ostern. "It's being there when they need someone."
Woellert remembered the many times the fire department would arrive to a scene and the people there would greet them with relief. "You get a rush out of it, but it's because you signed up to help people out."
Olson said the feeling of responsibility felt good. It's a feeling he and the others haven't quite been able to shake when they hear the sirens now.
"You wonder if they have enough people," said Olson. Getting out of the fire department has worked out well for the crew since, according to Olson, there were other, younger guys waiting to join.
Out of habit, Woellert said he finds himself waiting for the pager test to go off every Monday night. "I had some regrets of getting off the service, but we had people who wanted to get on," he said.
Both Woellert and Olson said they have scanners they listen to, which reminds them of their service.
Ostern said he misses being with his co-workers and going out with them on a call.
Being on the service for that long has taught the three men a few lessons.
"Teamwork is one of the biggest things," shared Ostern. "You have to accept the people do things differently and work with them."
In a job where the volunteers must act quickly, Ostern said it was also very important to slow down and think before doing something. "You have to make sure you don't get tunnel vision."
Ostern said he also has taken several precautions in his own house and work at Morem Electric to ensure safety.
Olson learned similar ways to be safer and prevent accidents.
Woellert said he learned a lot from the procedures and techniques behind firefighting. The equipment the ambulance and fire department crews use has changed significantly over the years although Ostern said the basic first-aid has not.
"Some things, you just can't improve on. Putting on a band-aid is the same," he said but added that the overall service has improved.
Woellert said he has appreciated how the fire department has become a fire and rescue team. With other equipment, they handle other emergencies such as ripping open cars with the Jaws of Life. The price of equipment has gone up a lot and rescue techniques have been modified, but the concept of saving people's lives has not.
Even as they retire, Ostern, Woellert and Olson have been evaluating the future of their crews.
"People have to have the willingness to help someone. That's all it takes," Ostern shared.
The Preston EMS has been dealing with low numbers and needs more volunteers willing to become EMTs.
Olson and Woellert said they felt comfortable where the fire department is at.
Now, the three men retiring from their volunteer service can focus on their work, hobbies and families. Sleep will also be enjoyed more deeply. After many years of sacrifice and service, it will be much deserved.