When three tornadoes touched down in Sioux Falls last Tuesday, first responders were there to keep community members safe and aware of what was happening.
It wasn’t the first time tornadoes struck southeastern South Dakota. Lieutenant Mike Murra of the Vermillion EMS Fire Department, recalls when he was stuck in the winds of Tornado Tuesday — a large tornado outbreak that produced 125 tornados across southeastern South Dakota in 24 hours — in Centerville, S.D.
“There was a great big white funnel cloud that came down and I told the guy that was with me, ‘If that keeps going we’re going to lose Centerville,’” Murra said. “It was huge, I will truly never ever forget that.”
During tornadoes, storms or fires, a firefighters’ main goal, Murra said, is to protect the community.
“Being able to go and make a difference in somebody’s day, is the best part,” Murra said. “The cliche is that we catch people on their worst day and it’s nice to make a difference.”
The same firefighters protecting communities from natural disasters spend the school year responding to fire alarms across campus.
Over the summer, Murra said there was a “quiet time” as far as the numbers of calls the department had. Now, with the return of the students, the department is seeing more and more calls.
Last Tuesday, there were two fire calls to the Burgess-Norton dorms caused by a faulty fire alarm in the first-floor bathroom, which caused the heat from the showers to set off the alarms.
“It was kind of annoying (having two drills so close together),” Dylan Whelchel, USD Grounds worker and volunteer firefighter, said. “It is what it is though and it ended up being nothing, which was good. Both times all the students were really cooperative and evacuated the building, which was really good.”
Volunteer firefighters and EMTs make up most of the Vermillion EMS Fire Department. The team is made up of mechanics, students, groundworkers and a variety of other people.
Murra first became a volunteer firefighter in 2000. He joined the Centerville Fire Department after his boss handed him an application and said, “fill it out.”
Nineteen years later, Murra said he is still learning and enjoying his time as a firefighter.
“If you don’t learn something from each call you should take a step back,” Murra said. “You just have to push through the nerves and think about the end results.”
After 15 years at the Centerville department, Murra transferred to the Vermillion EMS Fire Department in October 2015. One of the first things he told his boss was that he was a firefighter and he would like to continue volunteering here.
Murra said if it wasn’t for understanding bosses, he wouldn’t be able to do what he loves doing.
“There are not a lot of businesses that let you go because they just don’t realize what it takes,” Murra said.
Whelchel is not only allowed to leave work but is paid by the university while he is out on a fire call.
“I’m outstandingly grateful (for USD’s understanding),” Whelchel said. “I am also super grateful that my fiancé is 100% understanding that at any moment I could leave no matter what we’re doing.”
Finding time to balance work, the fire department and family time is the biggest challenge of it all Murra said.
“Family time is family time. When you’re doing stuff with the family, you have to make the choice on whether you’re going to go on a call or stay with your family and it’s tough sometimes,” Murra said. “But
Student cooperation in drills is critical, Whelchel said. The quicker students exit the building the faster the fire department can make sure everyone is out and safe.
Even during drills, Whelechel said it is important to take it seriously and get out safely.
“This year is a lot better than last year as far as student cooperation. This year if there’s an alarm going off they are way more willing to evacuate the building and be helpful,” Whelechel said. “If everybody’s not out we don’t know who’s inside. As they come out and relay information to us so it’s extremely important.”
Sometimes, fire alarms are false alarms pulled as a prank. Anyone caught pulling a fire alarm when there is no fire could face criminal charges if they’re identified. Pulling a fire alarm when there is no fire is a misdemeanor, but it could become a felony if someone gets hurt exiting the building.
Whelechel said it is extremely frustrating when a fire alarm gets pulled as a joke. The fire department takes it seriously and expects others to as well.
“A pulsation generally means someone saw fire and pulled it. There’s usually not a faulty pulsation,” Whelechel said. “The fact that people are immature enough to pull them is upsetting.”
“Sometimes it can be a little difficult just because you never know when you’re going to get a call,” Howard said. “But it’s something I’m really passionate about and when you’re passionate about something you find time for it.”
The three agree the reward and adrenaline rush that comes with being a firefighter outweighs the challenges.
The Vermillion EMS Fire Department is always taking applications for both firefighters and