By Tony Hooker
Brian Moody was in the middle of a long, bad day, and had decided to take the afternoon off.
That was his plan, anyway. Until he got a fire call for a field fire west of Villa Grove, and with VGFD command unable to make it in a timely manner, they asked him to take control of the scene, and he was happy to do so. That’s the life of a volunteer fireman in our area. One minute you’re making plans to send some emails from home and hang out with your kids, and the next, you’re coordinating a fire scene with six departments responding. I recently sat down with the energetic Economic Development Manager and Tuscola Fire Chief, to hear how days like that go down, how he came to be involved, and much more.
It’s kind of funny how I came to be here today, right? Standing in the middle of a corn field in Douglas county.
I know, right? <both laugh>
Can you sort of walk me through how that day went down?
As I remember, there was just a lot of craziness going on in my life that day outside of the fire department. I had kind of called it a day and decided to take the afternoon off, and as almost invariably happens when I try to do something like that we have a fire or something else go down. We were just coming off a red flag warning, which we didn’t use to see too many of in the past. (A Red flag warning means fire conditions, mainly dry and windy weather, are currently present and a fire could easily ignite and spread quickly, per the National Weather Service.) Fortunately, we’re late enough in the harvest that it’s mostly stubble and there’s not a lot of standing corn left. I don’t take a lot of long vacations, I just try to sneak out for a day or an afternoon here or there, and sure enough we got paged out. Interestingly, this time, in the initial page, we were told that Villa Grove had no available firemen available to respond, and that we would be running the incident and that she (the dispatcher) would be likely paging out Pesotum as well. I’m very familiar with all these folks, I’m the president of the county fire association currently, so we know all of our neighbors and play nice. I got off the radio with dispatch and checked to make sure that we had enough firemen available to respond and headed out there. On the way, I got a call from Chris Elston (Villa Grove FD Assistant Chief) and he said he was leaving work in Champaign and he was 20 minutes out. I got off the phone with Chris and got on the phone with Rob Russian, the Pesotum Chief. I had just made it far enough north of Tuscola to see that something was going on and called him and asked him to roll. I called Douglas country and asked for a full alarm. She didn’t call Arcola because we had Pesotum coming, and we also had Tolono on their way. We got out there and the fire was burning down the middle of the field, with the wind coming directly from the south. That let us work on both sides of it and we had cultivators and field plows already out there, so we were going to be in good shape. It’s about that time that I saw Tony walking down the middle of the field and thought that I should probably get you in the truck. I’ve been in enough field fires that I know that the wind could change directions at any time. It was important to get all the way around it. We were very cognizant of the standing corn to the west, and the water way to the north and we wanted to keep it from those areas. We consider ourselves to be a city department, so we don’t have a lot of equipment specifically to fight field fires, but we’re capable of it. Villa Grove did a nice thing a couple of years ago and went out and bought a nice brush truck and it’s worked out great. I think at some point in the future, we’d like to have something similar to run around the fields in.
How does ultimate responsibility for the fire become assigned?
That’s what’s unique. It doesn’t usually go down that Villa Grove will be the first one paged and then give off responsibility to Tuscola. We always try to leave the guy who gets the initial call in charge. When they ask us to step up, we will absolutely do so. We have a county wide mutual aid agreement where we agree that we’ll help each other as needed. If Chuck (Black, VGFD Chief) would have been available, that would have definitely been his call. Typically, we would partner and run a command point side by side. This one was a little different because I had to run around a little bit. You got to see the truck I’m in now, which is definitely an advance from the one I used to have. Now I have two mobile radios and I can talk on the two main frequencies that we use. There are actually three frequencies involved. We’ve got the Tuscola frequency, and then there’s a county wide frequency, and in this case, Champaign county is on a whole different radio system, so I have a portable radio we can talk to them on. So, my main focus was to get everyone running in the same direction and not working against each other.
Do egos ever become part of it?
Sometimes, but that’s really part of getting around each other and getting to know each other. That’s why the county fire meetings are important. In 25 years, I’ve absolutely seen things like that happen, but I have to say that right now, I think the departments are getting along great and working well together. Since I’ve been chief and the president of the county fire association, I’ve tried to emphasize that other departments should never hesitate to call us, but that they should call us early. Don’t call us when it’s a disaster, a total mess. We aren’t always going to be able to come in and bail you out. If you don’t need us, get on the radio and say “Hey, I don’t need you.” We’ve got no problem with that. We just want you to know that if you think you’re going to need us, get those resources rolling early. Tuscola has been really fortunate to have a bunch of people who work here in town, in addition to others that work out of town. That’s allowed us to be able to help neighboring departments. 2:30 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon in the middle of the week is a pretty tough time for a lot of these departments to have a big incident, especially in the middle of the harvest.
Employers in town don’t have a problem letting their staff step away for fire calls?
Historically, we’ve been very fortunate. All the businesses in town have been very supportive. There’s been times when we come back and there’s still work to be done that I’ll let them go, especially those who are actively employed and should be working. I try to get them turned around and back out the door.
It’s kind of self-serving for the businesses also?
It absolutely is. I think that it’s important that our employers act and feel that way. They view the involvement of their employees with the fire department as a positive. To me, that’s a big thing. For years, I worked for Dave Arseneau and he let me do that. To him, it was absolutely a conscious thing for him to say that if you get a call, you need to respond. That allowed me during the day time to be an active member of the fire department. I probably wouldn’t be chief today if that weren’t the case, but that’s needed in a small community. To make it work, we have to have that. I think that we’ve been really fortunate that our county has realized that we have certain capabilities and if we can go help, we go, knowing that we know that if we need help, we’ll get it.
It’s cool that each department seems to have a unique piece of equipment that they can bring to an incident? Tolono has the six-track. Villa Grove and Broadlands have brush trucks, and Tuscola has the ladder truck, right?
That’s exactly right. I think it’s a really neat thing about the county that there is a nice balance of what’s available and what folks have. That’s exactly the way it is with the command truck. I’ve previously had a big desk sitting in the passenger seat. Like I said, the radio configuration is completely different. This was designed so that I can put another command officer in the car and we can be on two different radios, running the incident. People can come up to us and talk to us individually through each window. If I need to move three guys on a scene, like that field fire, I can go pick those guys up without having to take that half million-dollar fire truck and move up and down ditch banks with it. That’s exactly what we’re going for, going for balance across all the departments as to what equipment we have. There have been a number of smaller units purchased for local departments that are much more utility. That way, we can keep those trucks maintained without putting unnecessary miles on them.
Do you do cross departmental training?
We try, but it’s hard trying to be able to get everyone together at one time. I think everyone has made an effort to ramp up their probationary training. We make everyone go through a nine-month probationary process here, so everyone knows how we do things. We’ve been talking to Pesotum about some cross training where, since we have more people available during the day, we can respond to some of their calls, and they have some equipment available that we don’t, so we’re thinking we can work something out to be able to use their equipment if we need it. I think we’re going to cement that in the spring. From a legal standpoint, most of that is already covered because of our mutual aid agreements and all that. We just need to keep finding creative ways to keep working together, because we’re not a Champaign, who has 100 guys on duty at any one time. It takes 15, 20, or 30 guys to effectively work an incident like the one we just had.
If someone wants to help, how do they reach out?
They can reach out to me directly, they can do so. There are fire department applications on our city website. We keep the applications on a running basis, so we tell people to put in an application if they’re interested. Whenever we’re ready to take a probationary class, I’ll call them and set up interviews and go through the process.
It’s probably the same sort of setup across departments?
I would strongly encourage you to reach out to your local department. They are eager to get to know you and see what you have to offer. All departments offer training opportunities so we can get you connected there. You don’t necessarily have to walk in with skills, although it’s great if you do. We all need help, especially during the daytime. That’s a definite need, no matter where you are in the US.
What’s the best part of it? Driving in the homecoming parade? <smiles>
<laughs> Yeah, we’re getting ready to drive Santa up and down literally every street in Tuscola. To a person, the people on our department are just the greatest people you’d ever want to meet. All of them, to a person, have a desire to serve others. That’s really everyone who comes in here. A lot of them love fire service, like the shiny fire trucks, lights and sirens. That still gets these guys charged up. The opportunity to serve their community is a big piece of it, as well.