Responding to the Call

Volunteer firefighters make big sacrifices to serve their communities

By Justin Franz
Clay Naomi, volunteer fire captain with Smith Valley Fire Department, pictured on Dec. 14, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

For many community volunteers, their service comes at a time of their choosing. They fill their weekends and evenings doing everything they can to make their community a better place while balancing the stresses of their daily lives.

But for John Peine, Clay Naomi and thousands of other volunteer firefighters across Montana and the country, the call to duty can come at any time, morning, noon or night.

“There have been moments where I’ve pulled into my driveway after a long day at work and the pager goes off about a fire or accident,” said Naomi, a captain and firefighter at the Smith Valley Fire Department west of Kalispell. “I put the truck back in reverse, wave to my wife and head to the scene.”

According to the Montana State Fire Chiefs’ Association, there are approximately 10,000 volunteer firefighters in the state. Eighty-five percent of fire departments nationwide rely on volunteers from the community to respond to calls.

Naomi, 43, is originally from Thompson Falls and first became a volunteer firefighter about six years ago when he was living in Cheyenne, Wyoming. After signing up, he attended a few training sessions and found that he really enjoyed helping the community. When he moved to the Flathead Valley three years ago, he knew he wanted to continue volunteering and quickly signed up at Smith Valley.

Volunteers go through much of the same training that professional firefighters are required to take. Along with taking a county-run firefighting training course, volunteers at Smith Valley meet weekly to practice everything from rescue tactics to CPR.

“The training never ends, and you almost have to make it your hobby — you have to enjoy it,” Naomi said. “It’s a hefty commitment.”

Naomi said the department receives anywhere from a few calls a week to a few calls a day, depending on the season. Summer can be especially busy with the roads full of visitors and forests full of fire.

Peine, 56, hails from New Jersey and was “raised in the firehouse” where his dad was chief. Peine got a job with the local police department as a K-9 officer and volunteered with the local fire department where his dad worked in his free time. In some instances, he would be the first police officer on the scene of a fire and then quickly don his fire gear to help with initial attack. Peine retired from the police force in 2010 after a 26-year career but continued fighting fires.

Growing up on the East Coast, Peine longed to move west when he retired. After buying a piece of property in Montana, his second stop was the Smith Valley Fire Department.

“The brotherhood of firefighting keeps me in it because it’s really cool to be part of something,” he said. “It gets in your blood.”

Besides fighting fires and responding to accidents, Peine has helped lead some of Smith Valley’s training programs, including the department’s young cadets program that helps introduce teenagers to volunteering. Peine is able to pull from years of experience as a first responder, including responding to Ground Zero following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Peine and Naomi said the department always needs new volunteers, although they warn that it is a huge time commitment. Naomi’s one piece of advice is to always maintain an appropriate balance between life and volunteering. Despite the challenges and the calls that can come at anytime, he said being a volunteer firefighter can be incredibly rewarding.

“There is something about helping people on their worst day,” he said. “I know its cliché but it’s true. I can really make a difference and help my community.”

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