by Bob Grawey
Paul Smith’s family has a combined 83 years of service with the Elk River Fire Department. He is retired now, and grandson Ryan Lore has moved away, but two sons and a son-in-law still remain active with the department.
Jeff Smith is the senior member of the family now with 23 years of service, while brother Duane has been fighting fires 21.5 years and brother-in-law Gary Lore has been an Elk River firefighter the past 12 years.
All are paid, on-call positions. Each of the men holds down a full-time job as well.
Dad, Paul, was a firefighter for 22 years beginning in 1968. Jeff says he and Duane were always around a lifestyle of fire fighting, so it just seemed natural to follow in their dad’s footsteps. At one time, Paul and his two sons and son-in-law all worked together as firefighters before his retirement.
A lot has changed, Paul says, in how they respond to fires now compared to how he fought fires in the Elk River area when he was active.
Duane adds that methods have evolved in how a fire is fought. In the past, firefighters surrounded a blaze and drenched it in water, he says. With today’s technologies, along with water, firefighters may use something as common as air ventilation to fight a particular fire a certain way.
Materials in homes and home furnishings have drastically changed, too. Jeff says fires are much more toxic then when his dad was responding to fires.
Masks were not worn then and firefighters fought a fire from outside a burning structure. Duane says they now go inside a burning building to look for the fire and any hot spots in a more proactive manner.
Gary, Paul’s son-in-law, did not grow up around a firefighting culture but once in the family he became part of the team of emergency responders.
“During holidays when we were together as a family, their pagers would go off and they’d leave,” Gary says, “so I figured instead of being stuck there with all the hens, I’d go too.”
Jeff, the oldest brother, quips in and says it is really because Gary wanted to “be with his heroes.”
The men share a good-hearted laugh and seem very close. Gary calls it a brotherhood that reaches out to every firefighter in the department. It is men who share common values and a shared desire to serve their community.
Camaraderie and friendship are a big draw, Duane adds, especially when they get to help people in a way no one else can.
When asked if they had any funny stories to share, they are all seriousness in saying what they do is not a funny matter when someone’s house is on fire or when they are responding to a car wreck that has taken someone’s life.
Each of the four men remembers a particularly tough fatality; someone they knew.
Growing up in Elk River, the men know many people and where they live. In those circumstances when they are responding to an emergency where it is a friend or a family member involved, Jeff says they are all business until after they have finished handling the response. Then more personal thoughts crowd in.
But the men have fun, too, and admit there are funny moments even in the midst of an emergency, such as when someone rips one of the doors off the fire station as they race out to get to a fire.
Then there was the dog that had somehow gotten on the roof of a burning house. As firefighters began shooting water from the fire hose, the dog began running back and forth chasing and biting at the stream of water.
These shared moments, good and bad, funny or tragic, demand a huge commitment from firefighters and their families as they give up precious time with those they love the most.
The Smiths and Lore say there are times when they must leave their child’s birthday party or some other significant event to respond to a call for help. They might not be home to tuck their children into bed or eat a meal with family around the dinner table.
At other times, sleep is interrupted for the men and for their wives. That can take a toll when they must be at their full-time jobs just a few hours later.
These men are heroes to many, especially to those who have been saved or had their houses saved from fire, or helped in some other emergency.
But who are their heroes? Do firefighters even have heroes?
Duane is quick to look at his dad and say that he is his hero. Through Paul’s example of hard work, sacrifice and dedication, his two sons and son-in-law followed in his footsteps to embrace a life of dedicated service to their community.
Jeff and Gary seem to share those feelings, too.
Paul has been retired 22 years and Jeff is now at the top of the seniority ladder. It is his and the other’s turn to be a role model for the younger firefighters; to a new generation of men and women willing to sacrifice and to put others before themselves.
“”It’s a lot of fun,” Jeff says of being a firefighter. “When it stops being fun any more, it’ll be time to quit.”