(This story was first published in the Jan. 3, 2014 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By Katy Savage, Standard Staff
HARTLAND — As soon as Zach Wood’s pager goes off, he gets an instant adrenaline rush.
It’s a sound he craves, but at the same time never wants to hear. It means he’s going to help somebody. His heart rate doubles.
“You feel it,” he said.
Wood never knows when he’s going to be a firefighter, it could be when he’s mowing the lawn or in the middle of a dead sleep. And he never knows what he’s going to see. Wood lost his high school friend eight years ago when his car hit an ice patch and skidded into a tree in Walpole, N.H. It was Christmas Eve.
“That was the day I had to make a choice to keep doing it or if it was too emotional,” Wood said. “I kept doing it.”
Wood has been a volunteer firefighter for 15 years. He joined the Hartland Volunteer Fire Department two years ago.
He’s delivered babies, seen the aftermath of a quadruple fatal car crash and been in burning buildings.
“You have to let each call go,” he said. “You can’t let them stick with you. They do, you’ll remember them, but you can’t let them influence the next one because some of them are out of our hands.”
When Wood’s not going to emergency calls, he attends meetings and trainings. He and the other firefighters check the trucks and make repairs to the building. Sometimes, Wood volunteers 40 hours a week on top of his normal full-time job as a truck driver for Irving.
“He’s just a really eager and enthusiastic individual,” said Assistant Fire Chief Scott Bowers.
It’s a job that few can do and fewer and fewer want to do.
“Being a volunteer firefighter, I think, is a huge challenge,” said Hartland Fire Chief John Sanders. “It’s hard to find people in the prime of the career stage of life who still have the ability to volunteer time.”
There are about 100 hours of training that firefighters are required to go through prior to getting certified.
“It takes a special person,” Wood said.
Wood started volunteering when was 16. He grew up watching his uncle leave dinners to fight fires for the Walpole department.
“It’s something that’s always just kind of clicked,” he said. “When I had the opportunity, I took it. Haven’t stopped since.”
When Wood hears the pager, he goes to the station down the road from his apartment, puts on his fire gear and then waits for others to come. Once six people arrive, including an officer and a truck operator, they leave.
But sometimes they’re too late. The fire department ran out of water and was waiting for another tanker to come in the middle of a snowstorm last year, but it wasn’t quick enough. It was dark, then Wood could see his hand, then the walls. The man in front of him took a step as the stairs in front of them started to collapse. He knew it wasn’t good.
“That’s when you know it’s going to be a total loss,” Wood said. “That’s when you sit outside with a lot of water and try to put the fire out from outside.”
Wood goes to every call he can make it to, even though, sometimes, they can be mentally draining.
“You can mentally and emotionally get beat up on this job because there’s some things you can’t fix,” Wood said. “There’s been times you go home, you sit on the couch, you turn the TV on and you lose all control of your emotions.”
Wood continues fighting fires to make a difference in his community.
“Everybody, all the little kids look up to you,” he said.
It’s the brother and sisterhood throughout each department that keeps Wood and other fire fighters doing what they do.
“If I needed anything, I’d call anyone on the fire department and say I need to talk and they’d be here just as fast as I was,” he said.
They’re a family of fearless fighters.
“We all have to work together and we have to rely on that person to be a backup if something goes wrong in side of that building,” Bowers said.
If it’s not a challenge, they don’t like to do it.
“That’s all these departments are,” Wood said. “We’re all just extended family.”
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