By ANDREW MCGINN
Late this past summer, volunteer firefighters with the Jefferson Fire Department gathered on the elementary school playground in full gear and prepared to embark on an obstacle course with their face masks obscured by plastic wrap.
The 25-pound air packs on their backs are designed to keep a firefighter from inhaling smoke or even formaldehyde that can become airborne when furniture burns, but it’s all too easy for a firefighter to begin hyperventilating inside the mask.
The department’s captain, Sean Schiltz, made one firefighter do the obstacle course twice, even though there had been no issues the first time.
“Practice,” Schiltz said.
But, really, more than anything, the order was given out of love.
Schiltz was recently joined on the department by his 20-year-old daughter, Sydney Schiltz, making for the first father-daughter duo in the Jefferson Fire Department’s 123-year history.
In that time, more than a few fathers have served alongside sons, and brothers have fought fires alongside brothers, but as the face of the fire service slowly changes, it was inevitable that a daughter would eventually follow in her father’s bootsteps.
After all, Sean Schiltz had been inspired to join the local volunteer fire department because his dad, Gary, had served.
When an opportunity to join the department’s ranks this year presented itself to Sydney Schiltz — who was a cheerleader at Greene County High School just two years ago — she seized it, despite the obvious.
“You don’t see a lot of women in departments,” she said. “I looked at it as more of a male thing. At times, it’s body-demanding.”
During another training exercise this past summer, firefighters were required to pull a 150-pound dummy out of a ravine in simulation of a car crash.
“Teamwork’s required,” Sean Schiltz, 46, said.
And, so long as you’re dependable, who cares what you are.
Even so, as Sean Schiltz explained, “It’s still a male-dominated field.”
Still only 9 percent of the nation’s 682,600 volunteer firefighters are women, according to a report this year from the National Fire Protection Association.
That number drops even lower, to 7 percent, for career firefighters.
A 2018 graduate of Greene County High School who’s studying to be a nurse at Iowa Central Community College, Sydney Schiltz is only the third female firefighter in the history of the Jefferson Fire Department.
“I’ve never seen a girl work as hard as she does,” observed former fire chief Eldon Cunningham, 74, who rejoined the department last year, putting him on target to achieve 50 years of service in a couple of years.
Sydney Schiltz happens to be serving currently alongside the second woman, Amelia Carman.
“Some of these gals can out-hustle the guys,” Sean Schiltz said.
Before long, the Jefferson Fire Department might even have to rethink the name of its annual fundraiser, the Fireman’s Ball.
Cunningham, who originally joined the fire department in 1969, was chief when Brenda Pankow broke through Jefferson’s glass ceiling in the late 1990s, becoming the department’s first female firefighter alongside her husband, Ken Pankow.
Cunningham still remembers how that played out behind the scenes.
“When you bring up a name, the guys vote,” Cunningham said. “They voted her down.”
He spoke up.
“I said, ‘You know guys, her qualifications are almost 10 times better than anyone in here,’ ” Cunningham recalled. “We revoted, and they voted to let her in.
“She proved everything to those other firefighters.”
Fires in Jefferson burn just as hot and as unpredictably as fires in Des Moines. Motor vehicle crashes in Greene County can linger in a firefighter’s mind just as long as one in Polk County.
What’s different, arguably, is the motivation for gearing up and rushing to a scene at 2 in the morning in the middle of January.
Firefighters in Jefferson receive a token payment of $20 per call — and that just went up from $15 per call following the city council meeting on Sept. 24.
“Your heart has to be in it, and you have to want to be here for the right reason,” Sydney Schiltz said.
She sees serving on the fire department as an extension of her future nursing career.
“They both revolve around helping people,” she said. “That’s important in my life.”
Admittedly, though, not everyone has been thrilled about her choice to become a firefighter.
“My mom was not as fond,” she said. “She was worried I’d get hurt.”
As both her father and the department’s captain in charge of training firefighters, Sean Schiltz has faith in his daughter.
“Is there a concern? There always is,” he explained. “You have to have faith in them to make good decisions as well.”
Until Sydney Schiltz — or any other firefighter, for that matter — gets 100 hours of training under their belt, they aren’t allowed inside a burning structure.
“The time will come,” she said.
Sean Schiltz, who joined the department in 1994, still vividly recalls the excitement of his first call.
“Hay bale fire,” he said.
OK, on second thought, it wasn’t that exciting — but he still attacked those burning bales like a four-alarm fire.
“They gave me an ax and told me to get at it,” he remembered with a chuckle. “You’re on your first call and want to save the world. It’s a very humbling experience.”
What’s impossible to predict is the next call.
In Jefferson, it could be anything from a grass fire on a breezy day to a catastrophic grain elevator explosion, like the one in the summer of 1974 that killed three employees of Farmers Cooperative (today’s Landus).
Cunningham knows from experience what Sean Schiltz must be feeling. Sons Mike Cunningham and Jeff Cunningham both served at times on the fire department with their dad.
“Sometimes,” Cunningham said, “it seems like a thankless job, but it was neat they wanted to come on with me. I was proud the boys were on there with me.
“I’ll bet Sean’s the same way.”
The next call could be the big one
The Jefferson Volunteer Fire Department averages five to seven minutes from the time of the call to the arrival of the first unit, according to the city’s website.
Some calls, however, are forever burned into the community’s psyche.
A few of them through the years:
August 1974 — A cutter torch being used by a nearby construction crew ignites dust at the Farmers Cooperative (now Landus Cooperative) grain elevator.
One of the largest elevators in the state, with a capacity for 5½ million bushels, the ensuing explosion is heard more than a mile away.
The blast kills three employees of Farmers Coop, and injures three construction workers.
Jefferson volunteer firefighter Louis Martin is lowered by rope 80 feet inside the silo to recover two of the bodies.
December 1976 — A fire breaks out near the basement furnace of McCoy Press and spreads rapidly above the false ceiling that connects three buildings just south of the Square.
Three businesses are destroyed: McCoy Press, Zimmer Paint Store and Collector’s Corner.
A day later, cans of paint are still exploding.
Making matters worse, firefighters grapple with frigid weather.
Spring 1981 — A fire totally consumes Bowling Greene, a former livestock sale barn-turned-bowling alley located just south of the city limits on Highway 4.
The fire is fed by an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 tires stored in the building’s rear by McAtee Tire.
Lightning is the suspected cause.
October 1992 — Fire crews from six towns, including aerial trucks from Boone and Perry, battle against fate to save the former Jefferson Hotel at 215 N. Wilson Ave., built in 1894.
The building — by then known as the Jefferson Apartments — is a total loss.
January 2013 — Flames from Larry’s Restaurant and Lounge leap as high as 30 feet into the frigid night air.
The scene becomes hazardous for firefighters as water sprayed on the blaze by a ladder truck from Carroll freezes almost instantly on the sidewalk and street.
An empty lot on North Wilson Avenue still marks the spot.
January 2016 — The 200 block of North Wilson Avenue suffers yet another major fire when Pizza Ranch goes up in smoke.
The quick response of firefighters is credited with saving the block.
When fires are found burning in multiple areas inside the restaurant, it’s quickly declared an arson.
The owner, Rob Schultz, of Ankeny, was deeply in debt at the time. He later pleaded guilty to criminal mischief and arson, but managed to avoid prison with a controversial plea deal.