21 Dec Family affair: Service to others a common thread
by Sonja J. Keith
Firefighting has become a family affair for Rodney Sanders.
Rodney — who serves as a captain — is starting his 24th year with the Conway Fire Department. His son, Larry, has been a Conway firefighter for a little more than 11 years and was recently promoted to captain. Rodney’s nephew, Randel Green, is beginning his seventh year with the department and is an engineer.
In addition to their work for the City of Conway, all three are firefighters with the Highway 286 East Volunteer Fire Department. Rodney — who serves as chief — has been with the department for 34 years. Larry and Randel serve as the assistant chiefs. Two other family members are also volunteer firefighters for the department.
“It’s a big family affair out there,” Rodney said. “I enjoy going to help people. It got in my blood.”
All three are assigned the same work schedule, which makes it nice for family get-togethers when off-duty.
Randel has worked at the same station with Rodney and later with Larry, but now they are assigned to different stations — Rodney is at Station 4 on Salem Road, Larry at Station 5 in West Conway and Randel at Station 1 in Downtown Conway. Still, they bump into each other on runs, at meetings or during training while on duty.
Larry points out there are other related firefighters in the Conway department, and it is a fairly common occurrence throughout the United States.
SERVICE TO OTHERS
Rodney recalls a neighbor’s house burned 35 years ago, which motivated the Highway 286 East community to start the volunteer department. It was the spark that also prompted his interest in firefighting, but he lived in the county at the time and couldn’t apply until the residency requirement was changed. He previously worked in construction and owned a cabinet shop.
Rodney, Larry and Randel have similar thoughts on “why” they chose firefighting and what they enjoy most about their work — service to others.
“I love doing it,” Larry said. “I like helping people. I know it’s a cliché answer, but growing up I always liked helping people . . . I like it all.”
For Randel, firefighting is also appealing because of the diversity involved. “Knowing that every day you are going to be doing something different,” he said, describing firefighters as a “jack of all trades.” There’s something, too, about the adrenaline rush. “The flashing lights, sirens and bells — every little boy has a dream of being a firefighter at one time or another.”
Randel enjoys most “getting out there and helping people,” whether it’s assisting on a medical run or placing sandbags out when streets flood. “A lot of people appreciate what we do whether it’s the worst time of their life or not,” he said. “I really enjoy doing that.
“House fires are going to happen, and I want to be there,” Randel said. “I enjoy the feeling of knowing you just helped somebody.”
The importance of their work hits home when they are presented with life and death situations. Last year, there were nine “saves” in Conway where firefighters administered CPR. Rodney’s crew had five of them.
One of the saves — a man who had a heart attack while jogging — came by the station to thank Rodney and the other firefighters. While he has had family members come by to express their appreciation, it was a first for Rodney. “There’s a lot of pride when they can come by and thank us for doing it,” he said. “I’ve been a fireman for 34 years, and it was the first time anybody saved came to thank us.”
Larry and Randel’s interest in firefighting began early. At age 5, Larry began accompanying his father to fight fires for the volunteer department. “He’s loved it ever since. Randel is the same way. He’s wanted to be a fireman since he was born,” Rodney said, adding that growing up that Randel would ask for a Conway firefighter T-shirt for Christmas.
“He was just a volunteer, but when his pager went off I wanted to go with him,” Larry said, adding that he also liked to attend the weekly meetings at the volunteer department. “Growing up, that’s all I knew. That’s all I ever wanted to be was a fireman.”
“I remember when Larry and I were kids if we heard the fire pager go off we were at the door, begging to go,” Randel said.
It appears that the family tradition of firefighting will continue.
Randel’s 4-year-old son, Hayden, and Larry’s 7-year-old son, Peyton, have both shown interest in following in their father’s footsteps.
At age 5, Peyton accompanied Larry to a grass fire. “He’s more enthusiastic about becoming a fireman than I was at his age,” Larry said, recalling that his son got to hold a hose to help extinguish the fire. “Dad let him take the hose and put it out. He still talks about it to this day.”
Peyton even has his own turnouts (firefighter gear), which he would lay out in his bedroom like a real fireman. “When I have a fire, he would want to go with me every time,” Larry said.
Hayden, is also interested in firefighting and his father’s work. In his room, there is a framed painting that Randel made as a first-grader at Florence Mattison Elementary School of a firefighter with the words “Conway Fire Department.”
“He’s into it just as much as I was,” Randel said.
While taking Hayden to school one morning recently, Hayden was fascinated with his dad’s turnout and air mask equipment that were in the family’s truck. He asked his father for his own air mask for his upcoming birthday.
“It’s a really neat thing,” Randel said of his son’s interest in firefighting.
Because of the nature of their work and the time spent together, all three recognize the unique bond that exists between firefighters.
“We’re here every third day for 24 hours. It becomes your second family,” Randel said. “It’s a brotherhood. Even if I’m off-duty, I know that a phone call away I can have someone there to help me. It’s a really neat thing to be a part of.”
Larry points out that his children call other firefighters “uncle” or “aunt,” with firefighter families spending time together when not working. “It’s a great job. You get to help people and form that second family.”
Larry said firefighting is more than a paycheck. “You have to want to be a firefighter. This isn’t a normal job.”
One day, there may be 10 fires and the next day not one. “You can’t just draw a paycheck. You have to want to be a firefighter . . . I just like to help people.”
With all three, the interest in firefighting extends beyond the job and is reflected in their homes. “I’ve got all kinds of fire stuff at my house,” Rodney said, including the first helmet he wore as a volunteer and professional firefighter. Both Larry and Randel do, too.
“We talk about fire all the time,” Rodney said, explaining that they will discuss a recent run and compare notes. “It’s just something we always talk about.”
Rodney understands the risks involved in firefighting for himself and his family members but relies on his training and fellow firefighters. “To me, it’s not a concern. In Conway, we work with the best group of men, and we look out for one another. It’s the same at the volunteer department. We train them like we train here. We look out for one another at both places.”
“I love it,” Rodney said of his work. “There’s not a person at the fire department that loves their job more than me.”
Unless it’s Larry. Or Randel.
“In my opinion, it’s the best job in the world,” Larry said.