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From boyhood dreams to saving lives

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A FRIENDLY DEBATE: Twin brothers, Jeremy Herring, left, and Kirk Herring, who are both volunteer firefighters in different departments, debate which type of fire hose is better.
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TWINS: Brothers Jeremy Herring, left, and Kirk Herring, right, in their firefighting gear.
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ON THE ROOF: Firefighter Kirk Herringworks to breach a roof while battling a house fire.

By Clay Winowiecki

cwinowiecki@chronicle-tribune.com

The journey to become firefighters for twins Jeremy and Kirk Herring began playfully at the age of 5 when the pair were gifted a red pedal-driven fire truck. They would ride it to their neighbors’ house and lay the truck’s ladder against her house, knock on the door and proclaim, “Lady, you have a fire!” Used to their shenanigans, she would invite them inside for snacks.

Countless children dream of growing up to become a firefighter or police officer, but few pick up the call to serve.

Now, at the age of 43, the twins serve on two different fire departments in Grant County. Jeremy is the deputy chief of the Center Township Volunteer Fire Department and Kirk is an assistant chief for the Pleasant Township Volunteer Fire Department. Each serves as second-in-command in his respective department.

It was around age 12 when Jeremy and Kirk became earnest students on the subject of fighting fires. The pair, given a portable scanner, spent summers chasing fire trucks across Gas City on bikes every time the words “structure fire” crackled across the airwaves.

“We’d follow these guys to the fire scenes and after the fire was over they’d put us to work picking up hoses and doing odd stuff that was safe for kids to do,” Jeremy said. “At the Gas City Fire Department there were certain members on there that took us under their wing and helped us grow.”

On nights when the Gas City firefighters held meetings, the boys would join with an open ear, eager to glean whatever nugget of wisdom offered.

“It meant a lot (to us),” Kirk said. “We probably wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for those guys. They influenced us in such a positive way that 20 plus years later we’re still doing it.”

As they entered adulthood they began on the Gas City Rescue Squad where they worked on an ambulance. At age 21, when the pair reached the age cut-off for their respective fire departments, Jeremy went to the Mill Township Volunteer Fire Department and Kirk went to the Gas City Volunteer Fire Department.

Becoming a firefighter boiled down to one main point for the twins: helping out your fellow neighbor.

“Especially in their time of need, in their crisis, to be able to help somebody it gives you a sense of pride,” Jeremy said. “It gives you a sense of worth that you’re helping somebody in their time of need.”

However, volunteerism doesn’t pay the bills.

Jeremy works as an ambulance EMT for Marion General Hospital, while Kirk is an operations processor at Central Indiana Ethanol. Yet, the twins feel a sirenic calling to fulfill their servant hearts.

“What if volunteers didn’t volunteer?” Kirk said, explaining why he sacrifices free time to volunteer. “I’m not in it for the money because there is no money. At Pleasant Township (Fire Department) we don’t get paid a dime.”

The only payment Kirk receives is a free hamburger or steak dinner during fire hall meetings. He spends his own gas money and ruins his own clothing during rescues.

“If there were more people helping people out in the world it would be a better place,” he said.

Nationally, there’s a shortage of volunteer firefighters. In Pennsylvania the shortage was so dire the state legislature authored a 95-page report which revealed that while in the 1970s there were around 300,000 volunteer firefighters statewide, today there are only around 38,000.

Jeremy attributes the problem to a modern generation unaccustomed to volunteering.

Balancing the life of a volunteer firefighter is hard too.

“(Younger guys) have a hard time balancing the volunteer aspect, their job and their family,” Jeremy said. “They want to spend most of their time down at the fire department and in the real world you can’t do that. I always try to have the talk with them that family comes first.”

Since the twins’ fire departments are so far apart, it’s a rare day when they are on the same fire scene. The last time it happened was nearly a year ago.

“We had a structure fire (last year) and I called Center for manpower and when he showed up I was relieved because I knew that I had somebody who knew what they were doing,” Kirk said. “It helps when you see your brother show up. I got somebody that’s educated and I can count on him to know what’s going on.”

And, naturally, they worry about one another. Unfortunately, most of the time the brothers glue themselves to the scanner to know what’s happening on a fire call.

“Anytime I hear Pleasant’s tones go out I am thinking ‘Oh my gosh, man,’” Jeremy said. “The first thing that comes to mind for me is ‘is he working?’ I worry about him.”

Now more than two decades into their careers, they’ve learned fighting fires is a younger person’s game. When they were younger they spent nearly all of their time inside burning buildings during fires, a difficult, smoke-choking task. The more time they spent inside burning buildings, the more they realized it might be nice to be outside with a hose for a change.

Over the years they’ve climbed the ranks. Two years ago Kirk became assistant chief and in January Jeremy became deputy chief.

“We support each other,” Jeremy said. “You’re amazed by the lights and sirens when you’re a kid … This was really something (we wanted) to take serious.”