The men and women who serve as firefighters constantly put themselves in harm’s way in service to others.
That point was made apparent Monday night with the death of two Kansas City firefighters who lost their lives in an apartment fire.
For one Pettis County family putting others first is a way of life that three generations have known for over half a century.
“I was a little girl when dad first started to volunteer as a firefighter,” Leisa Gero said. “Even though I have grown, dad is still volunteering and helping others.”
Not only is her father a member of the Pettis County Volunteer Firefighters but her husband, brother, daughter, niece and nephew are also members of the organization.
“It is simply something we have always known and done,” Gero said. “Our parents taught us since we were little to care and give back to the community we lived in and I think that is what we are all trying to do.”
Leisa’s brother, Mike Harding, currently is the Chief of the Pettis County Volunteer Firefighters.
He joined the organization in 1993 after watching their father for years on the job.
“I ran calls with Dad when I was a little kid,” Harding said. “I was never allowed to be in any place where I was in harm’s way or would interfere, but I was always intrigued with what he was a part of.
“I think it takes a special person to do what Dad has done,” Harding said. “It is in some respects a family struggle because it doesn’t matter what you may be doing because at a moment’s notice you have to drop everything to help someone else; that is what Dad always did.”
Fred Harding has a unique bond with fire because it was a fire that almost took his life.
In 1965, the Pan Handle Eastern Natural Gas Company in Haven, Kansas, employed Harding.
As a lineman, one day Harding and his co-workers were cleaning the line when an explosion occurred.
Two men were killed and nine were seriously injured in the blast, including Harding, who had 3rd degree burns over 38 percent of his body.
“I had to have a medical release before I could work as a firefighter again,” Fred Harding said. “I went back to work on the gas lines, not in Kansas, but here.
“I didn’t want to quit helping,” he said, “When we first live in LaMonte I was a volunteer, then we moved to Greensburg and I served there. When we finally moved back to Pettis County, I joined the volunteer department here.”
His son, Mike Harding was a lieutenant on the force at the time.
“There were a few times when I had to discipline him, (Dad) maybe a time or two,” Harding said with a laugh as his father smiled. “Honestly, he is the best at what he does,”
Mike Harding has served on the Pettis County Volunteer department for 25 years.
In his first year as chief, he now oversees an all-volunteer crew of 68 to 80 men and women.
The number of volunteers varies due to conditions in the lives of those who chose to serve.
“I think there is a misconception out there about the volunteer firefighters,” Mike Harding said. “ I certainly don’t mean to take anything away from the Sedalia Department because they are there when we ask for assistance, but people don’t realize that for those individuals it is their job and for the most part they exactly when they will be sent out on a call.
“For our men and women, most of us have full time jobs that we may have to leave at a moment’s notice to help someone,” he added. “We chose to do this and we do it willingly, but when you really stop and think about it; we are putting our lives on the line to help save someone else for $20 a day.”
Harding is referring to the fact that a volunteer firefight is paid $20 when they go out on a daily call.
“We have to train just like the other troops in numerous areas, from firefighting and prevention to medical situations, and extrications from vehicles and such,” Mike Harding said. “The world has changed so much from when I started and certainly from when Dad did.”
Harding gave an example of how automobile technology has made the job more complex by saying that with the new smart cars; volunteers have to know the trends in electronic systems for safety measures.
“With the way cars are designed now, there are possibilities for electric fires which are handled differently from other types of fires,” Mike Harding said. “You cut one wrong wire and the whole thing can explode.”
Experiences such as that is one reason Harding cites for the declining numbers in volunteers.
“Everything is so different from how it used to be and volunteer firefighters are a dying breed across the United States,” Mike Harding said. “Some of it may be a fear of what may happen on the scene and some of it may be people just don’t feel they have the time to commit to this.
“I know personally I have become immune to death,” he added. “I think myself and everyone in the family has had to deal with that far too much in our lives.”
Harding commented that after many fires and accidents, he will go home and talk to his wife about what he has witnessed and then he is done.
“Out of respect and privacy, we can’t talk about it in public,” Mike Harding said. “I’ve watched close friends and family lose loved ones in accidents and fires I’ve worked, and it is hard; some are a lot harder to forget, but you know you do everything you can to help…”
Harding said that volunteering is all about the brotherhood and sisterhood of those who chose to serve.
“I look at my sister, her husband (Louis Gero) is a member of the board, and now her niece Kelsey (Harding) and nephew, Scott (Lawton) are serving as well. Her daughter Tayler has applied to be a member too.” Mike Harding commented. “It’s just like my mother; she always had to worry when the “red phone” would ring.
“And yet she and really all the wives are there helping when they can by bringing us something to eat or cold water to drink, whatever they can do; they support us through everything,” he added. “We are all part of a family even if we are not all related by blood.”
Hope Lecchi can be reached at 660-826-1000 ext. 1484