WALTON — The Walton Fire Department recently promoted several of its volunteers, moving those with experience into its top leadership roles and assigning a new role to former Chief Merlyn Johnson.
Johnson started volunteering as a firefighter in 1986 and has officially served as Walton's fire chief for the past 14 years.
"We don't get many cats out of trees. ...We got a parrot off of the top of the elevator once," Johnson laughed.
His motivation for joining the department came from a desire to support the town he lives in.
"It's hard to find people who will give of themselves. We don't get paid for what we do," Johnson said.
Johnson and the other volunteer firefighters spend around 300 hours each year training for and responding to emergencies.
"When people call 911, they're having the worst day of their lives and we're expected to go deal with it," Johnson said.
Besides grass and structure fires, the department also handles wrecks, natural disasters and hazard material spills.
"If I had to name one thing that we'd never have to do again, it'd be car accidents. Those are just the worst," said WFD Captain Jeremy Ashby.
Johnson agreed dealing with wrecks has been the toughest aspect of the job, taking an emotional toll.
Several of the hundreds of crashes he has seen stick in Johnson's memories, including one where he saw a woman drive past him in a suburban. Seconds later, he heard the distinctive sound of metal hitting metal as the suburban rammed headfirst into a semi. Miraculously, the driver survived.
Another car crash victim was unable to be saved after striking a tree and being partly ejected from the vehicle. Johnson and a fellow responder performed CPR on the young woman for two hours before being told there was no hope for her survival.
"That was a big one for me. When (the doctor) said we had to let her go, well, he was the doctor," Johnson said.
Adding passing lanes and wider shoulders to Highway 50 has drastically reduced the number of deaths from car wrecks around Walton.
"We still run from one to three fatality accidents a year; we used to run from 12 to 15 a year," Johnson said.
Each call is different and can affect the firefighters in different ways.
"EMT and medical training teaches you how to deal with a patient; they don't teach you how to deal with death," Johnson said.
"I don't think anybody can be trained how to walk into it; the key is to provide a service for people to walk out of it," Ashby said.
That is why both Ashby and Johnson are part of Harvey County's Critical Incident Stress Management team.
Johnson said if it wasn't for the CISM team, he would have been overwhelmed by the suicidal thoughts that started about five years into his firefighting career. Now, he prioritizes debriefings with the younger volunteers in his department after traumatic calls.
"I look at it as keeping my employees," Johnson said.
Walton Fire Department also assists neighboring fire departments with large-scale incidents. Of those, the wildfires that burned near Burrton in 2016 was the most challenging, Johnson said.
Ashby, who was with Johnson at the time, recalled seeing trucks and horses going over the roads while they were on fire. The smoke was so thick at times, the men could not see each other while sitting in the same vehicle.
"The first three or four hours, I don't know how we didn't have anybody killed. It was a war zone," Johnson said.
Johnson was placed in a command position to battle the winds blowing over 40 mph and burning grasses and trees throwing up flames topping 20 feet high.
The incident command system used was the same one Johnson helped to implement in Harvey County in 1991.
"It's a structured way of managing incidences; turning chaos into a manageable situation," Johnson said.
Johnson's days spent fighting the wildfires — and years of additional experience — is something Ashby said is invaluable to the fire department. While no longer serving as chief, Johnson plans to spend at least the next year in his new role as a liaison officer for the Walton Fire Department.
"In a paid department, once that chief retires he doesn't come back to help guys like myself who are working their way through the officer ranks," Ashby said. "...It's just a confidence builder for me to know that I'm learning, but Merlyn's there as instantaneous backup."
"I've never been one to do it all. That's not being lazy; it's not being selfish, either. It's sharing the load," Johnson said. "How do you get involvement and ownership in the department? You give your captains and firefighters jobs to do, they do them and they feel good about it."
Having co-chiefs for the fire department allows the volunteers to split up the responsibilities of operations and administration.
"That's really rewarding, to watch people grow and know that the fire department doesn't just revolve around one or two individuals," Ashby said.
"We have a good department with a bunch of good people," Johnson said.
Walton Fire Department provides and receives mutual aid from other fire departments, both in Harvey County and neighboring counties.
"We have an unbelievably lucky situation working in Harvey County, because our departments work well with them," Johnson said.
Ashby said it is easy to call for additional resources — and sometimes aid is volunteered before it is requested.
"We've had fires where people have gone out of their way to call in and say, 'hey, we're available,'" Ashby said.
Recently, a system has been put in place to page several fire departments at the same time for structure fires in or around Walton.
"If we have a structure fire in town, automatically Hesston, Newton and Whitewater are coming to our fire," Johnson said.
If the fire chief determines other departments are not needed for a fire, they will radio in to release them, but critical minutes are saved in case additional units are necessary.
That practice also gives support to the department because many of the volunteers do not work in Walton and may be unable to arrive quickly.
"When (a fire) happens, it happens. We don't know," Johnson said.
Recruiting new volunteers to the fire department is another challenge Johnson has taken on for several decades.
"Merlyn has single-handedly brought on 90 percent of the people we have right now," Ashby said.
Around 20 years ago, the response to 9/11 brought an influx of young men to the fire department.
"Now, the average age is probably 30. We're not seeing that younger generation. Our new members are probably 30-plus," Ashby said.
Johnson said he is careful about asking people to volunteer; looking for people who own homes in Walton and are at a good time in their life to take on the role.
"It's a major commitment. We don't want someone for six months and then they're gone," Johnson said.
Applications for the Walton Fire Department are available at the city office, located at 122 Main St. in Walton.