Merriam is saying goodbye to its volunteer firefighters.
Although the force started as an all-volunteer crew in 1947 when the area was still called Shawnee Township, only three volunteers remained last week.
The city’s professional firefighters gathered Saturday night to honor those three, Division Chief George Mallory Jr. and firefighters Eric Heim and Travis Simpson, after a decision to stop having volunteers in the department.
Mallory had served as a volunteer since 1960, balancing late nights and busy weekends of training and fighting fires with his job as a mechanic for TWA through most of those years. Although he’s never been part of the paid squad, he rose through the ranks to division chief, senior to most of the paid firefighters.
Fire Chief Bob Pape said that it’s been difficult to find volunteers, given the amount of time and training necessary to make it safe for them to respond alongside the full-time, paid firefighters. In recent years, an agreement to share resources with other local fire departments has lessened the need for the department to keep its volunteer program.
“It’s one of those bittersweet things. They’ve done so much for the city,” said Pape, who started as a volunteer.
Along with special proclamations sent by Mayor Ken Sissom and Gov. Sam Brownback, Heim and Mallory received various parting gifts, including their fire helmets. Simpson, who served for 12 years, was not able to be at the ceremony.
Assistant Fire Chief Doug Crockett also presented Mallory with a mounted fire axe, and members of the department gave Mallory his own radio, programmed for various local fire department bands, knowing he would miss listening for the calls.
Firefighting seems to run in the family for the volunteers. Mallory’s father was a volunteer with the Merriam Fire Department, and so was his son, Jeff. His daughter, Michelle, served as an emergency medical technician at many of their fire scenes.
Heim’s father and brother have also been firefighters. Heim started as a volunteer firefighter in Merriam, then transitioned to the city’s paid squad. After more than three years on Merriam’s paid squad, he left to join the ranks of the Kansas City, Kan., Fire Department but has continued to serve as a volunteer for Merriam for the last two years.
Heim said he always wanted to be a firefighter and that the camaraderie with the other guys there is the best part of the job.
Mallory agreed, saying that the team at the fire department is like a family. During the ceremony, several people mentioned Mallory’s love of stopping into fire departments wherever he was, especially on vacations, to chat with the local firefighters.
He got started by driving the fire trucks when he was 17 and tagging along with his father. Although calls involving burning buildings can be exciting for firefighters, Mallory said the best reward was when he was called out on code blue situations, where someone isn’t breathing, and was able to save a life.
“The reward is when you see them walking down the street,” he said.
One of his best memories of his career was when a man stopped him in the street to thank Mallory for saving his life after a car wreck that was fatal for others in the car.
“He said, ‘Sir, you saved my life, and I just wanted to thank you.’ That’s pretty cool,” Mallory said.
According to Pape, there are more than 1 million fire departments nationwide, and more than 70 percent have volunteer firefighters. Merriam’s current paid squad has 23 firefighters.
Even though he’s officially retired from the department, Mallory said he might turn up at fire scenes in the future to keep everyone on their toes.