Palliser volunteer firefighter honoured

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Ken Wahl makes a clean sweep at Jennie Emery Elementary School.

COALDALE – Ken Wahl might just be the ultimate family man.

Not only does he feel blessed for his immediate family – including wife Rita, his three grown children and a newly arrived grandchild – Wahl also considers himself fortunate to be part of larger families in both the Coaldale and District Emergency Services, and Palliser Regional Schools.

He was among the volunteer firefighters recognized at the emergency services annual awards evening for their contributions. Palliser Regional Schools, which signs his paycheques as head custodian at Jennie Emery Elementary School, was among the businesses and organization thanked for allowing employees to leave work in order to answer emergency calls.

It’s not been uncommon over the past 27 years for Wahl to get called out to a house fire or car crash in the early morning hours, and then show up for his regular shift sweeping the hallways at Jennie Emery. On top of that, there’s ongoing training including two or three hours of practice a week to keep lifesaving skills honed.

Wahl loves helping others and enjoys the ever-changing challenges – as well as the adrenalin – that comes with being a volunteer firefighter. There’s something else that keeps him going, however.

“I think a lot of it is the group of guys. It’s just like a family and we consider ourselves brothers and sisters there,” says Wahl of the fire department.

He got into firefighting because his brother and neighbour were both involved and there was a need for more volunteers. Wahl once considered firefighting as a career, but wasn’t sure how he would deal with the grim realities on a daily basis.

As a volunteer he’s still seen images that stick with him, especially fatalities involving children. If a first responder claims such sights don’t bother them, Wahl says it’s a lie.

“But you also have to remember that you didn’t cause the situation; you are there to provide help,” he says. “Lots of time it crosses your mind that if you would have been quicker, you might have saved them. But it’s not meant to be.”

Wahl prefers to focus on the people he and his colleagues have been able to save. That’s only made possible through businesses which provide employees with the flexibility to volunteer, especially during the day. Of the 32-person roster at Coaldale and District Emergency Services, only two and a half positions are paid.

This was the first time he recalls employers being recognized for their role, and Wahl couldn’t have been more pleased. In his 26 years as a school custodian – first under the County of Lethbridge and then Palliser Regional Schools – there’s never been an issue with responding to a call.

“Of course, I use my discretion. If something major is going on at the school, I’m not going to say ‘sorry, I’ve got to go to this fire call,’ ” he says. “The fire department knows that too, and they understand.”

It’s not like Wahl is itching to get out of his day job. He’s spent all but two of his 26 years as a custodian at Jennie Emery Elementary School and says he still looks forward to coming to work every day and takes pride in his job.

“It’s the kids. Being around the kids is what makes a difference,” says Wahl, when asked what motivates him after all these years. “And the teachers and staff are great here. It’s like one big family.”

Principal Sherrie Nickel says the feeling is mutual, and calls Wahl a “superstar”

“Everyone knows and loves him,” she says. “Just as he does in his volunteer role, he pitches in with every initiative we have in the school – and even puts up with the glitter!”

While Wahl is thankful Palliser allows him time to volunteer, he says it couldn’t happen without the support of his wife of more than 30 years, Rita. He was probably a little too dedicated when he first started, begging off family camping trips and other activities that might make him unavailable to answer a call.

“I tell the new guys when they join: ‘don’t make it your life. You do have your own family to look after,’ ” Wahl says. “My wife has been so supportive. She worries every time I go out at 2 in the morning that I’m not going to come back. It’s a dangerous job and it could happen.”

Still, he wouldn’t hesitate recommending volunteer firefighting to anyone interested. Wahl points out there are volunteers on the Coaldale department who can’t stand the sight of blood, and he’s not big on heights himself. There’s always other tasks with emergency services that need to be done and ways they can help make a difference in their community.

“It’s a wonderful thing and it’s going to be tough quitting, as my plans are to retire after 30 years (of firefighting),” says Wahl. “It’s starting to take a toll on the body and this job isn’t easy either. You are always on your feet and moving things around.”