RARE HONORS ... Presentations of Medals of Valor are rare within the Decatur Fire Department, but two of its veteran members, Capt. Jeff Sheets and Lt. Tim Ulman, received those honors on Thursday evening at a special department dinner. From left are, Fire Chief Les Marckel, Sheets, Ulman, and Indiana Fire Marshall James Greeson. The Ohio Fire Marshall, Larry Flowers, also attended. (Photo by Eric Mann)
Rescuers and the rescued do not often meet a second time, but they did on Thursday evening at an awards dinner hosted by the Decatur Fire Department that drew more than 120 people, including state officials from Indiana and Ohio.
The major honors of the night were medals of valor, and a standing ovation, for veteran firefighters Jeff Sheets and Tim Ulman for their lifesaving actions last March 2 two miles inside Ohio when they rescued an elderly woman whose car was in deep and frigid floodwater.
The woman, 81-year-old Margaret L. Spindler of Hoagland, was pulled from her car while the water was up to the window level and as she was entering hypothermia. She was taken in a fire department boat to land, driven by a Van Wert County, Ohio, ambulance to Van Wert County Hospital, then flown to Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne.
Spindler suffered cardiac arrest and spent three weeks in hospitals, but recovered fully and was at last evening's event to meet Sheets and Ulman in much better circumstances.
The gathering at the Family Life Center of Zion Lutheran School brought out not just the Decatur firefighters, but also those from the Monroe and Preble departments, leaders of the Berne and Geneva departments, and members of the Willshire and Wren, Ohio, fire departments.
The special guests were Indiana Fire Marshall James Geeson; Ohio Fire Marshall Larry Flowers; and State Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne.
On March 2, members of the Willshire and Wren FDs were at the scene with the Decatur firefighters, but those two departments do not have boats. Decatur has had a water rescue team since 2004 and, on March 2, was the nearest department so equipped.
In opening remarks, Decatur Fire Chief Les Marckel spoke of emergency personnel being always "vigilant and flexible" and becoming "helping hands" when called upon. In times of crisis, he said, there are no county lines or state lines, but "just helping hands reaching out."
The 30-year fire service veteran said fire departments have been given all sorts of tasks not related to extinguishing fires, such as water or confined-space rescues, handling hazardous materials, or reaching people in trouble in high and low places.
"We excel at whatever is posed before us," Marckel said, adding that firefighters are "individuals willing to become a team" to accomplish goals, especially when lives are on the line.
Later, Marckel said the DFD's water rescue team was created in the wake of the worst flood in Decatur's history, in July of 2003, with the first 16 department members being trained by the South Bend Fire Department in "the most intense training I've ever been through."
He introduced Flowers as a man with whom he has been a close friend since 1983. He stated that Flowers served as an Ohio state representative from 2001-08 and spent 37 years as a firefighter.
Flowers, who noted that Marckel's brother, Ken, was his pastor and his campaign manager on his first successful run for representative, said that, in the fire service, "one becomes many" when teams are formed.
The Decatur department gave unit citations to the Monroe and Preble fire departments for their work, which, as Marckel said, "puts an exclamation point on 'Citizen Service,'" the motto of Decatur's municipal government.
Another award was given to longtime Decatur firefighter Roger Gage by the department's auxiliary. Michelle Stimpson of the auxiliary said Gage, whose is Decatur's superintendent of building and zoning, understands construction well and provides "dynamic energy" to the fire department.
Greeson, who was a firefighter for 43 years, the last four as chief of the Indianapolis Fire Department, said the state has 831 fire departments and 80 percent of them are staffed by volunteers, as is the case in Adams County, with four of the five departments being all-volunteer (the exception being Decatur).
Greeson called emergency personnel "the first line of defense" and said volunteer fire departments respond to all alarms, whereas professional fire departments in large cities do not go to all runs.
Firefighters, he said, are a utilitarian breed: "they just want to solve the problem" and doing so takes "situational leadership for the event that's occurring."
Mayor John Schultz extended his congratulations and strongly backed the concept of mutual aid by fire departments and others, saying such tactics "make it all work."
Closing comments came from the pastor at Zion Lutheran Church, Rev. Phil Phifer, the Decatur department's chaplain. He spoke about the women who wait at home as firefighters dash off to do their duty.
Phifer said wives, girlfriends, and other family members must accept sudden calls when "someone else's plans took a turn for the worse and their lives may never be the same again." However, he added, the loved ones of firefighters realize that any call for help "could be the last call," if a firefighter never returns home.