Vol 7 No. 49 - August 29, 2007

West Manatee Fire & Rescue: All about A-Shift

Anna Maria Island Sun Feature Story
PHOTO/WMFR CAPT. TOM SOUSA
The firefighters of A shift are from left, top row, Greg Wigeri van Edema, Jeff Philips, Nate Bergbom, Lt. John Tynski, Mike Petrosino, Chris O’Kelly, Capt. Chris Shepard, Lt. Darren Vollmer, Battalion Chief Dennis Dotson and bottom row, Ben Rigney and Greg Roan.

By Pat Copeland
sun staff writer

Most of us see our firefighters when we are in trouble – in a car accident, a fire or a similar emergency event.

We thought our readers would like to know a little about these men who come to our aid quickly and unfailingly to rescue or revive us or to save our property. They do it without fanfare because it is their job and one that they are extremely proud to perform.

There are common threads that run through the stories of the firefighters of the West Manatee Fire & Rescue District – they get immense satisfaction out of helping someone in need, they relish the camaraderie of their fellow firefighters and they have tremendous love and devotion to their families.

The fire district has three shifts, A, B and C, of 11 firefighters each. They are stationed at one of three fire stations in Holmes Beach, Cortez or west Bradenton. They serve 24 hours on duty, and have 48 hours off duty.

This is the third part in the series and features the men of A shift.

Battalion Chief Dennis Dotson, 55, has been with the district for 16 years after six years as a volunteer.

"I wanted to be a firefighter ever since I was a little kid and they had the call boxes on the light poles," Dotson recalled. "If there was an incident, someone would pull the lever on the call box, which set off an alarm in the fire station. Horns in the fire station would blast and the different blasts would tell you the type of incident.

"I love coming to work. The real story is the guys on my shift. They are so supportive of each other and make each other shine. I like being around people who care. They have a feeling about what’s going around them and are a great resource for the community."

Dotson and his wife, Linda, like outdoor activities and spending time at their second home in Tennessee. He has a stepson, Matt, 22.

Lt. Darren Vollmer, 35, has been with the district since 2000 and was a volunteer for five years before being hired.

"I wanted a steady job and a career," he said of becoming a firefighter. "I like the guys I work with; it’s like a home away from home. I also like the schedule."

Vollmer has a second job repairing and refinishing furniture. He and his wife, Nicole, have two children, Victoria, 14; and Hunter, 8, and he enjoys boating and taking Hunter fishing.

Nate Bergbom, 27, grew up on the Island and at 14 joined the fire cadet program at West Manatee. He became a volunteer at the age of 18 and in 2000, he was hired by the district.

"Battalion Chief Rich Losek was testing fire hydrants one day and I rode by on my bicycle," Bergbom recalled. "He told me to come by the station, and I started stopping by on my way to school. I was in third grade.

"When I was little, it was the big red trucks, the loud noises and the fact that the firefighters were all nice to me. Now what I like about it is the camaraderie, the brotherhood and helping people."

Bergbom enjoys golf and water sports. He and his wife, Casey, have a dog, Wrigley, and a cat, Angeles.

Jeff Philips, 24, was a volunteer in Sarasota for a couple of years before becoming a volunteer with West Manatee. He was hired by the district three years ago.

"Firefighting is in my family," he said. "My uncle is the fire chief in Fernandina Beach, and half my cousins are firefighters and the other half are policemen in Chicago.

"The schedule is perfect and it’s a lot less stressful than people think," he said. "The people I work with are really great and it doesn’t seem like work."

Philips is working on his fire science degree and likes surfing and going to the beach. His girlfriend is Stephanie.

Capt. Chris Shepard, 44, was a volunteer for three years before being hired 18 years ago.

"I like not being stuck behind a desk inside all day," he said, "and the adventure, the excitement and the bond you build with the others. It’s a great job. I enjoy coming to work every day after 18 years.

"Going into a fire — it’s hard to explain – the adrenaline rush. It brings everyone together to do a good job, stop the fire and save the house. Or you bring someone back from a cardiac arrest and give them a second chance. It’s very rewarding."

Shepard and his wife, April, enjoy family activities, sports and camping in the mountains with their children, Alexandra, 13; and Adrian, 10.

Mike Petrosino, 36, was a volunteer for two years before being hired a year ago.

"I like the opportunity to be able to help people and the community – knowing you are important in the community and that people know that you’ll be there when they need you."

Petrosino enjoys and spending time with his wife, Kelly, and children, Kasidy, 13; and Kyle, 9, and fishing with Kyle.

Chris O’Kelly, 32, became a volunteer in 1999 and was one of the first firefighters hired by the merged fire districts (Anna Maria and West Side) in 2000.

"I wanted to be a firefighter since I was a little kid. We had a fire in our home when I was 4 and ever since then, that’s what I wanted to do. It’s my passion. I’ve never wanted to do anything else.

"I like camaraderie, the brotherhood. It’s like a second family; you don’t find that in other jobs. I like the satisfaction of helping people. I love coming to work every day, and I like the schedule because it allows me to spend time with my family.

O’Kelly enjoys mountain biking, and he and his wife, Andrea, have two children, Emily, 13; and Aiden, 4.

Lt. John Tynski, 48, became a volunteer in 1987 with the West Side Fire District and has been paid since 1989.

"West Side sent out a mailer asking for volunteers," he recalled. "I was bored and thought it would be something to do. I found out that I loved it. Every day is different; every call is a challenge, mentally and physically. I’m proud to do the job."

Tynski likes fishing, boating and hunting. He holds a captain’s license and is trying to start a charter fishing business. He and his wife, Linda, have two children, Melinda, 23; and Bridgett, 20.

Greg Roan, 39, became a volunteer in 2003 and was hired in 2004.

"I agree with what John (Tynski) said," he said. "Every call is different and it’s never monotonous. I like the camaraderie – it reminds me of my frat days in college. I like the satisfaction of helping people."

Roan enjoys backpacking, camping and fishing and on his days off works in a backpacking shop, Environeers, on Fruitville Road in Sarasota.

Ben Rigney, 21, another Island native, was a volunteer for three months before being hired a year-and-a-half ago.

"My father, John, is a firefighter with Longboat Key and my brother, John Jr., is a firefighter with St. John’s County," he explained of his interest in the job. "I like helping people. I see people when they’re down and make them feel better."

Rigney likes being with his family and camping. He also does plumbing work with his father in his spare time. He and his wife, Cori, have a daughter, Emma, 10 months.

Greg Wigeri van Edema, 38, volunteered with the Nokomis Fire Department for two years before being hired six years ago.

"I like the fact that the department is very progressive in education and training," he said. "We have a new training officer who is always on top of it, always sending us e-mails about what training is available and would be beneficial to us. It has jelled the shifts and increased morale.

"I like the camaraderie, the physical work and making a difference. The job allows you to spend quality time with your family.

Van Edema just completed his fire science degree and enjoys soccer, football and remodeling his home. He and his wife, Diana, welcomed their first child, Elizabeth Juliana, 8 pounds 12 ounces, on Aug. 23.

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