Monday, December 24, 2007

Volunteers pay price for passion

From Daily Republic (Subscription required)
Carol Bogart Daily Republic

SUISUN CITY - Five kids. All under 7, including not-quite-2-year-old twin boys. Plenty to keep you busy if you have just one job, right?

Tim Blewett, 32, has two. There's his county job doing environmental impact studies, and then there's his job as one of 46 volunteer Suisun City firefighters.

'I'm blessed to have a wife who supports what I want to do,' Blewett said.

Blewett's goal is to one day be a full-time firefighter. The day shifts he pulls as a volunteer are helping him achieve it.

In his regular job, he works a four-day week. A day shift at the fire house on Pintail Drive is 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Because many of the volunteers have regular jobs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Blewett can get more training by taking those harder-to-fill weekday shifts. Sometimes on Friday, he'll work a double.

As a volunteer, there's no pay or benefits. When he has used up his vacation time from his county job, he'll take unpaid leave to work more hours at the fire station.

After Blewett got out of college, he married and worked in an unrelated field. Any time he saw a fire engine racing down the street, he would think, ''Boy, I'd really like to do that.''

Each volunteer is required to work a minimum number of night and weekend shifts per month, but it's up to the volunteers which shifts they take. In the year and a half since Blewett graduated from Solano Community College's Fire Academy, he hasn't had to spend a holiday away from his wife and children.

Once he's a paid firefighter, that will change. He and his family know he will be 'low man on the totem pole, (but) we're ready to do it.'

When Blewett and others pull a Friday double and work 24 hours straight, the department sometimes stages a family get-together at the station. The meal allows volunteers and the department's three paid firefighters to spend time with spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends (there are four female volunteers) and their children.

Twenty-two people, only eight of them firefighters, recently had dinner together at the firehouse on a Friday night.

'The kids love coming down here and sitting in all the fire engines,' Blewett said.

Capt. Hank Seguin, 51, a volunteer firefighter for 25 years, transferred to the Suisun district in November. He said firefighters who are single try to take the holiday shifts so those such as Blewett can be with their families.

Seguin, who is married, has three grown daughters and a grandchild.

'Sometimes, you have to step up,' said Seguin, who worked Thanksgiving.

Families were invited to join the firefighters at the station for a Thanksgiving meal. Those working holidays don't have to do the usual chores, such as testing equipment, or even replace a faulty faucet in the kitchen sink, Seguin said.

When holiday shift firefighters are not out on calls, they cook or watch football on television, he added.

The volunteers train every Wednesday to make sure their skills are 'second nature' when they are in a fire situation that is IDLH: Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health.

He remembered responding to a call of an overturned diesel tanker on Interstate 680 on a foggy night. As he approached the scene, he said, 'You see what it is and say, 'Wow, it's burning.' ‘Two of the truck's fuel tanks had exploded and 'it's like a huge fireball. Very, very hot.'

With only enough water to keep the fire in check, not put it out, Seguin said there was just one thing he and a fellow firefighter could do: 'You just crawl on the ground and crawl back away. . . . That was one of the scariest.'

In any IDLH fire, Seguin said, 'You're not there to go die; you're there to try and save.' The most rewarding experience is when someone thanks him.

He remembered the look on a trembling woman's face when she saw that he and other firefighters had saved her home during the Oakland Hills fire in 1991. Hers was the only one of three homes still standing.

'Kinda makes it why you do it,' Seguin said with a smile.

Blewett agreed. Although not yet a seasoned firefighter such as Seguin, Blewett described himself as fully committed to his work as a volunteer. So are his wife and children.

'The families have to let us go so we can help others,' he said. 'Just because it's volunteer doesn't mean we don't come here when we're needed.'

'You're doing something for your community,' Seguin echoed.

Reach Carol Bogart at 427-6955 or at

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