At 15 years old, and a sophomore in high school, I had no idea of what career I wanted steer my learning towards, or what type of work I was interested in down the road. All of those decisions seemed trivial at the time, and my career seemed so far away. Yet now, almost 30 years later, it seems like it all happened in the blink of an eye.
I attended Beaverdam Christian School for K-9, and then attended Unity Christian High School in Hudsonville for my high school years. In the spring of my sophomore year, as was standard practice for all sophomores, I met with the career counselor. As he asked me what I was interested in, I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe college, but a job would be okay, too. He then mentioned classes that were available at the Ottawa Area Vocational Center, and that sounded like fun. He read through the list of classes available, and electrical class intrigued me. There were two openings available and I would be the third applicant. After discussing with and getting permission from my parents, I applied. A few weeks later, through a selection process, I was awarded one of the spots in the electrical program.
It was definitely a different environment for someone who had attended only Christian schools to be exposed to a class of students from many different backgrounds. I enjoyed the class and quickly learned that I enjoyed doing electrical work. Each day I would spend the mornings at school and the afternoons at electrical class. In November of my senior year, we had a “test” day where we could demonstrate our skills to area contractors who were there to judge us. As I installed what I was asked to do in our little demonstration house, the contractor there asked if he could hire me. There was a program in place that would allow me to attend classes in the morning and then instead of electrical class, I would work on a job site to gain additional skills. This lasted 6 weeks, and brought me to the first of the year. About this time the contractor called back, asking if I could work for him again for another six weeks. The program didn’t allow for that, but if the school would permit me to skip electrical class for the remainder of the year, the contractor could hire me. And they did. For the remainder of my senior year, I attended classes in the morning and then worked in the afternoons. After graduation, it just quickly translated into a full-time job.
I give you all of this background information to demonstrate that we are not in control of the direction of our lives. God uses everything around us gently to guide us in the way we should go. In the first summer of high school, I was still thinking of attending some type of college or trade school, and I even applied to some and was accepted to one. But this was 1983, and the construction field was just coming out of a slump, and there was work to do. I was eager to work, enjoyed the income, and didn’t really want to leave home and head back to school. So, instead of school, I opted to continue working.
It was in those first few years while working on job sites with other tradesmen that the coffee time discussion occasionally turned to firefighting. There were two and sometimes three guys there who were on the fire department, and I was fascinated by the stories they told. With my curiosity piqued, and how quickly I get excited about new things, I started looking into joining the fire department.
After applying to be a firefighter, I expected to be accepted quickly to the department, and start putting out fires. Didn’t quite happen like that. The fire chief at that time wanted each member of the department to be married, live in the city, and be somewhat settled down before he would allow them to join. For me, being single, that meant I would have to wait. Fast forward three years to 1988, and shortly after we are married I get a phone call asking if I still am interested. So off to firefighting school I go, two nights a week for eleven weeks. After the completion of that class, the state changed the curriculum and doubled the class time for those who wanted a Firefighter 1 license. I stayed in class for another 11 weeks and finished out the class. Still not sure exactly what I was getting into, I was now ready to fight fire.
In the first few years of being a firefighter, our department responded to about three calls a month. A busy year was forty. Then the city requested that we all become medically trained and start responding to medical emergencies as well. This now was completely different for us. We were working directly with patients, and entering in their homes, sometimes surrounded by a chaotic or stressful situation. We have to be careful to leave that behind us and not take the stress of that home with us. Our call volume increased as well. We now respond to over 400 calls per year. This too adds stress at home. There are missed meals, sometimes missed events, and even lack of sleep when called out in the middle of the night.
As the years progressed, I moved from the role of firefighter into a leadership role. In 1995 I was promoted to lieutenant, in 2001 I was promoted to deputy fire chief for the city of Hudsonville, and in 2003 I became a certified instructor for the State of Michigan Fire Service. I was still working each day as an electrician as well. In 1992 I had left K&L Electric and started a partnership called Grand Electric in Zeeland. In 2001 I left there to work by myself and devote more time to the Fire Department. Things have changed some in the past 11 years; I now have a couple of employees; I work a few days a week as an electrician and spend a day or two working for the fire department.
Each step along the way brings rewards and challenges. With leadership there are expectations, and there are many classes that an officer is expected to take. Many of these two-day classes are offered only on Saturdays and Sundays, and that didn’t work for me. I had to find a different way to make it happen. I enrolled in a daytime class in the winter when construction was slow, and did many of my classes during the weekdays. Just this past February, I finally finished Fire Officer III with a set of classes that were offered on a Friday night and Saturday. For me I made it work, and maybe that is the word of advice that I can offer is to be patient. It took a long time to get everything completed, but sometimes that is okay.
Working as a firefighter brings me into many situations. We normally see people when they are having a bad day. From fires to illness to car crashes to trying to revive someone to no avail, I have been there. What motivates me? What gives me the desire to do this work? The answer has changed over time. In the beginning it was the lure of excitement, the thrill of the job; as time goes on, it is a heart of compassion that wants to help others. It is the ability to use the gifts that God has given me to lead others, to teach new firefighters, to help those in need, all while showing an attitude of thankfulness to God.
My advice to the young reader who finds himself where I was some 30 years ago? Be patient. Wait on God. Pray each day for direction. Wherever you are called to labor, whatever is your station in life, embrace it with thanksgiving. Work each day in gratitude to God. Show others that you belong to him. Along the way, make sure your decisions guided by the word of God. Question those things that arise in our lives and present themselves as opportunities. Should I work here? May I work here if Sundays are mandatory? Is this a good environment for me? Am I serving myself here and my interests? Am I fulfilling my calling as a father, mother, husband, or wife? Am I trying to turn stones into bread? Too often we make excuses to compromise our beliefs. We feel that no one understands the circumstance we are in, or that we don’t have any other options. Keep in mind that God loves each one of us, cares for us, even when we make mistakes, and his promise is that he will never leave us or forsake us.
Would I encourage a young person to consider a career in the fire service? Maybe. All of my service has been on a part-time basis in which we are considered paid on call. The only Sunday work is when there is a call and occasionally that does occur. If someone is considering full time career in the fire service, it would be advisable to check out fully what all of the requirements would be. Some departments require union membership; some have training or meetings on Sunday. Make sure that your goals and practices are in accordance with living an antithetical life. Whatever vocation you choose, do it carefully, work diligently, and live each day for the glory of God.