Volunteer firefighters retire

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Ron Nielsen, Bobbie Vetter, Dick Rudeen and Tom Yackey have more than 100 years of volunteering for the Yampa Fire Protection District -- longer than a lifetime -- among them.

All four are retiring.

The decision to retire after so many years of assisting South Routt residents and visitors in desperate need -- whether their cars have crashed or homes caught on fire or health quickly worsens -- is a tough one.

Nielsen, the fire chief of the district for the past 24 years and a volunteer for about 28 years, said it would not be too hard to retire, "because you're not really that retired." Nielsen, Vetter and Rudeen said they plan to keep volunteering for the district. Yackey could not be reached for comment.

It's tough for them to detail why they have kept at it for so long, maybe because it is so natural to be a volunteer with the district. It's enjoyable work, Nielsen said, and a way to give back to the community, Vetter said.

Or, as Rudeen, a volunteer firefighter since 1981, said, "It's something that needs to get done, and if people don't volunteer, then it doesn't get done."

The people they work with and the people they serve give the volunteers another reason to stick with it.

Vetter, who is the Emergency Medical Services Division Chief for the Yampa Fire Protection District and has worked with the district for the past 30 years, said there is an immense satisfaction in seeing a rookie learn the job and become a good, solid firefighter or EMT, just as there is satisfaction in working with a tight, dedicated team of volunteers.

Being in a small town and rural area also means that volunteers usually are not helping strangers, Vetter said, but rather, family members, friends and neighbors.

The only baby Vetter has delivered en route to the hospital was Nielsen's grandson.

The job requires dedication, as volunteers will sometimes have to shut down their businesses and stop whatever project they're in the middle of to respond to calls, Vetter said.

"Nobody's life or home is worth the business that you transact in that little bit of time," she said.

The retiring volunteers have seen the volunteer fire departments come a long way during the past few decades.

Back then, there were not pagers or 911, but rather "fire phones," which rang into a home or business where a volunteer waiting for calls would contact the emergency responders.

When Vetter joined, there was no ambulance service. The county owned a station wagon that stayed parked in South Routt County, and there was one man who would give people a ride to the hospital if he was available.

"You took yourself, or your neighbor took you," Rudeen said.

Now, wearing a pager that could go off at any time may seem restrictive, but Vetter said it actually provides a lot more freedom than volunteers have had in the past.

Nielsen, Vetter and Rudeen have helped at a few large-scale emergencies during the years, such as when the county shop burned down in the 1980s, or when a passenger bus crashed in 1981, resulting in one fatality and 37 people who needed to be transported to the hospital.

"I would never make a good spectator," Vetter said. It's hard enough to watch international disasters and emergencies on television and not go to help, she said.

The three will see how retirement sits with them, while still volunteering when they can.

When Vetter had eye surgery in 1983 and was not allowed to work, her family took her emergency pager and turned it off. It was difficult for her to get through those weeks.

Nielsen, who plans to do some traveling, said he thinks it's good to get new people in leadership positions now while the previous leaders can train them.

All three encouraged residents to volunteer for the district, saying that there are various ways to contribute, such as helping with bookwork or note-taking.

"There are endless possibilities," Vetter said.

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