A man who just retired as Chief of a volunteer fire department in rural Lee County says he would not change a thing about his lengthy tenure, despite some very difficult experiences.
Paul Henson joined the Jackson Township Fire Association 21 years ago.
Two years later, he assumed the duties of chief and held them until he gave up the title, without leaving the association, this month.
Henson says he got his start by chance.
“They came up here and put in 911 signs one day. The fire chief came up and said, ‘what are you doing?’ I said, ‘not much.” I had just got out of 30 years with the Boy Scouts (of America). He said he had something I could do, and that is how I started. I just showed up one day and didn’t really think about fighting fires. It was more about giving back and doing something for the community. I like to volunteer on stuff.”
Henson says each volunteer fire department has a different set of requirements for joining. He says it is important to note that you do not have to actually fight fires to be a volunteer fire-fighter.
“Each person brings something diferent to a volunteer fire department. They could be a mechanic, they could be an electrician, they could be somebody that knows about building construction, they could just be someone who wants to work hard. It is not all about fighting fires, maybe it is about being in the medical field or something like that. Every department is looking for someone that fits with them.”
Henson says the average volunteer firefighter lasts about 4.5 years. He says they leave due to family needs, taking a professional job, or time constraints.
Henson says Jackson Township Fire Association has some members with 40+ years of experience which helps during difficult situations.
He says firefighters respond to the fire station west of Keokuk when a call comes in before heading to the scene. The response tends to be better at night because of work requirements during the day.
The biggest need is manpower, though money is always helpful. All it takes to join a local volunteer fire department is a phone call.
Henson says when he looks back at his 19 years as chief, he remembers the difficult days.
He points to the day when three Keokuk firefighters lost the lives, the day he had to take his best friend to the hospital for heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation and the day he had to take five firefighters to the hospital after making a winter water rescue.
“Those are the kind that’s the toughest. They stick with you, they are not the good memories, but they are the ones that is always in the back of your mind when you are making decisions on the fire scene and as a fire chief, that is something you learn or you get it by hard knocks. You can get all the schooling you want and everything else, but when that time comes, that is a tough call.”
Henson says he would follow the same path when looking back on his years as chief. He says that is part of the reason why he remains on the department as a firefighter.
He says some of the most rewarding moments are when he comes across someone who his department responded to and they just smile and say thank you.