Deputy Chief Jody Clements remembers exactly when he wanted to be a firefighter.
As a kid he was riding in the pick-up truck with his dad, a volunteer firefighter by La Crosse in the days before pagers, when they heard sirens. A small fire blazed near the railroad tracks.
“My dad grabbed the hose and headed over the hill. All I could see was flames, and he told me to stay in the pickup,” Clements recalled. The fire was put out and his dad returned over the hill, none the worse for wear. “I’m thinking as a little kid, that was pretty neat.”
Now celebrating 25 years at Marshfield Fire & Rescue this March, Clements feels fortunate in his career.
“I’m very blessed to work with the people that I work with. They’re dedicated and smart. In our job we have to trust them with our lives, and I do.”
After high school, Clements put his name on the waiting list for the Madison technical college and worked two years to save up money, doing anything from driving tow truck to working on a farm. Later he was a paid, on-call firefighter intern for two Madison departments and did dispatch while attending school, becoming certified as an EMT and a (now defunct) Firefighter III.
Getting a full-time fire department job was extremely competitive in those days. Luckily, a couple departments offered him a job a few months after graduation, and Clements felt Marshfield was the right fit.
“Here at the department, every day’s a challenge. You might be on the ambulance one day but if a fire comes in, you’ll be a firefighter,” he said. “Being a smaller department, we’re required to wear many hats, and that was something that fit for me.”
AN EVOLVING PROFESSION
In his time with the department, Clements has seen many changes occur within the profession. For instance, Marshfield was the first class in central Wisconsin to upgrade to paramedic services from basic EMT.
“Instead of having a patient where the only thing you could do is get them to the ER fast, to now being able to get IV access, give them drug therapy, put them on a 12-lead EKG, and being able to not only diagnose, but sometimes treat these patients with electric therapy…it’s absolutely amazing the strides that we taken on the EMS side of the house.”
Though the number of fire calls has dropped since he started, the danger of those fires is much worse due to the synthetic materials used in homes.
“When those burn, they burn much hotter. The gasses that come off is fuel. It’s much more dangerous,” Clements said.
The lightweight material used for floors and ceilings means that there’s no warning when they fail. “I remember in my career crawling around in fires where the floor was bouncing,” he said. “Now with engineered materials, they don’t bounce. They’re either working or not.”
At the start of his career it was common for firefighters to go into a building and use all of their senses, even feeling with the side of their faces, to detect where the fire was. In complete darkness, firefighters would locate the fire and work to put it out. Another might go on the roof to vertically ventilate the gasses.
With construction changes and the quickness of modern fires, firefighters are using different techniques to fight them, such as positive pressure ventilation, positive pressure attack, or softening the fire before entrance by using the correct stream of water.
“Sometimes we’re putting fans in buildings before we go in to positive pressure, which helps with survival rates of would-be victims, and also makes it much safer for our firefighters,” said Clements.
The fire department is progressive when it comes to safety, whether that be adapting to hotter fires or protecting firefighters from cancer-causing carcinogens. Before it was a requirement, Marshfield trained its staff on protecting themselves from communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS.
“This might be hard to believe, but it was not commonplace to wear gloves on EMS calls,” said Clements. “People I worked with put them on when they ‘needed’ it.”
He recalled reading about a case in the early ‘90s where responders abandoned a call after learning the patient had AIDS. At the time, the disease was causing great concern and fear due to the mystery of how it was transmitted.
“Now EMS and paramedics wouldn’t think twice about treating someone with a communicable disease because they’re prepared and trained how to protect themselves,” he said.
A COMMUNITY EFFORT
After a quarter century of answering calls, there are many Clements won’t be able to forget.
Years ago, he responded to a minor car accident where the driver was slumped over the wheel. After a quick assessment, it was apparent that the person had experienced a medical emergency that led to the crash.
EMTs performed CPR and obtained an IV and medication for the patient, whose pulse came back. He was delivered to the emergency room.
Several months later, Clements was volunteering at the Eagles Club and was given a bear hug by an elderly man, who started to cry. It was the same patient who was given a fighting chance thanks to the quick actions of the EMS crew. Seeing him alive and well was an unforgettable moment.
“Not every call goes that way, not every tragic medical emergency can be brought back, but that one we did,” he said. “Because of timing, training and the care that he got beyond us up at the emergency room, the patient had a good outcome.”
Clements sees himself firmly as part of a community and team effort that strives for the best possible outcome when things go wrong.
“This isn’t really a story about me, but a story about how lucky I was to get this training to be able to help someone. This is about the community investing in me and investing in our department so we can have the training to be able to help people like this,” he said.
“We would be nowhere if it wasn’t for the community. If I don’t have the proper training and equipment, I’m just another person that’s trying to do good. I need to have the tools to do my job.”
THE FUTURE OF FIREFIGHTING
While firefighting isn’t as competitive today as it was when he started, Clements is optimistic about the future of fire service.
“We are getting some talented people that are coming into it. I would like to see more people think of the fire service as a career, but what we’re not getting for quantity, we are getting quality.”
If either his son or daughter, ages 13 and 11, wanted to go into the fire service, Clements would back them 100 percent.
“It’s a good job. There’s isn’t a perfect job, but I think if you truly enjoy serving others and trying to help people, it would be a job for you.”