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Willing to help: Volunteer fire captain saves lives on the ground, in the water

Rural fire departments thrive on community support and dedicated volunteers.

Captain Kevin Berger has spent 24 years with Dickinson Rural Fire and Rescue, becoming trained not only in battling blazes, but in handling rescue operations and working on their dive team.  

“When you save somebody’s life or do something, even just put out a grass fire, it’s the accomplishment and the fun of doing it,” Berger said at a recent event celebrating the 60th anniversary of the department. “All of us on the rural fire department are volunteers, so … we all have a regular job and then we do our firefighting, rescue and dive on the side.”

It’s tough work -- the satisfaction of a job well done is tempered by the harsh realities of the life-or-death situations the department is called into.

“Rescue squad would be the (hardest) because it’s somebody’s life at stake. Sometimes it is a death, sometimes you can save ‘em,” Berger said. “A house or a structure, it’s bad to see the loss but that’s stuff that can be replaced versus a life.”

At the same time, Berger recalls the feeling of being the first on scene and taking the critical immediate steps to prevent a tragedy from taking place.

“There was a couple of them where sometimes by the time the other trucks are rolling up you’ve got a door off and you’re getting a patient out, the ambulance is there and it just works right,” he said. “You don’t have to fight it.”

Even when things don’t have happy endings, “you still got a job to do,” Berger said.

The dive team is important and challenging work that calls for special training and equipment. Pulling drowning victims from the water and recovering sunken trucks are among the tasks that Berger had to accomplish in that role. He said that they’ve gone out to Minnesota to learn thin ice rescue techniques and train with different suits and techniques.

“A lot of our (dive operations) have been after the fact, but we’ve responded to open water and ice -- we responded to a dog that was out on the ice. We bought a special little boat that’s meant to go on thin ice that you can walk out beside and get back in, we had a couple of dogs with that and we can use it for people,” Berger said. “It’s really nice that West River Community Center lets us use the pool when we need to -- they usually give us at least half the pool.”

Collaboration between businesses and the community is what keeps the department functional and effective, and Berger said that the employers of the volunteers who let them take calls, which can come at any time of day, deserve gratitude.

“We can always use volunteers, because some people work in the oilfield they can’t leave work during the day for their jobs. Fortunately there’s some of us, our employers let us leave whenever we need to. That’s a big help,” he said. “We got to give respect to them and thank them, it takes a lot out of them. Some places have two, three people working there and all three people have to leave.”

Businesses and employers also provide direct support to the mission of keeping the area safe.

“I’d like to thank the employers who let the firemen go, and also the community support they help us with. It costs a lot of money to fit a firefighter in dive gear and stuff like that, and there’s a lot of training and volunteer hours,” Berger said. “We have a meeting on the first Weds, rescue squad training on the second Weds, regular training on the third Weds, dive training on the third Sunday and … then if there’s trucks to work on, we do all that too.”

Berger said that you just “make time” in order to fit in the duties of fire and rescue -- which have only grown more demanding in recent years as the drought conditions last year resulted in more fire incidents -- into a full time work week.

A way the community can further help is to be observant of fire risks and do their part to prevent burns from happening or to warn the department of controlled burns being planned.

“Watch what you’re doing, wind conditions, make sure you call in before you make a burn, there are some restrictions,” Berger said. “If they call in then we know there’s a fire/controlled burn in that area without sending trucks out, because if somebody is driving (nearby) and they see smoke … they’ll call, and then dispatch can see that somebody in that area is dealing with a controlled burn and we can maybe just send someone out without sending trucks.”

The call is always open for volunteers. Berger said new people who want to support the department need to be ready and willing to put in the time and work.

“It’s a challenge, they got to be willing to donate a lot of time because we donate a lot of time,” he said. “We build some of our own trucks … there’s a lot of extra time put in. It takes time to learn it but everybody’s willing to help each other.”

There are other veteran volunteers on the team, some having been there as long as 50 years. As for Berger’s plans for the coming years?

“I don’t plan on quitting any time soon.”