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Retiring volunteer firefighter values camaraderie

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O'Connell spent 26 years with Evergreen department

By Beth Potter

For firefighter Craig O’Connell, working as a volunteer for the Evergreen Fire Department was all about the camaraderie.

While it might sound like a cliché, the friendship and loyalty kindled among volunteer firefighters can’t be beat, said O’Connell, who was honored April 28 for serving for 26 years as a volunteer firefighter, including three as volunteer chief of the department. He currently works as a paid staffer and paramedic at South Metro Fire Rescue in Littleton.

“It’s not that the fires don’t matter, but that’s not what the department was about,” O’Connell said. “It was about my friends. My life is different because I have that circle of friends.”

Being a volunteer firefighter also is an honor, O’Connell said. Volunteers get involved because they want to help others, but it goes much deeper over the years, he said.

“I think the trust people give to you to be allowed to walk through their house … I’ll never really forget that,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell and other long-serving volunteer firefighters were recognized at an Evergreen Fire Protection District meeting, followed by a reception at Keys on the Green. With volunteer firefighter turnover of 15 to 20 percent in the department, it's important to recognize folks who have made commitments to the community, O’Connell said.

When he started in 1988, the fire district responded to about 700 calls per year, O’Connell said. That number has grown to more than 2,000. Emergency medical service calls also have increased dramatically, he said. Wildland fire training used to be one night per year — it’s now held on at least one weekend, he said.

O’Connell served as volunteer fire chief from 2000 to 2003, before persuading the fire district board that the workload was too big for a volunteer to manage. While he was volunteer chief, O’Connell worked on a district strategic plan that included construction of four stations — a new one in Upper Bear Creek to replace the original one there, stations in the Floyd Hill and Brook Forest neighborhoods, and a station in Kittredge. He also was involved in the getting the administration building/maintenance building built at Station 2 in Bergen Park, current Chief Mike Weege said.

Evergreen volunteer firefighters pour their hearts into their work, and it shows, O’Connell said. Taxpayers get “a hell of a service” for a minimal cost, he said.

"Evergreen volunteers are definitely a cut above the rest," O'Connell said.

Retired volunteer firefighters from the Evergreen Fire Protection District were honored Monday, April 28, for their years of service. In addition to Craig O’Connell with 26 years, they include:

• Gregg Baldwin, 23 years

• Mike Gregory, 10 years

• Vickki Hakes, 11 years

• Richard Hansen, 20 years

• Keith Haugrud, 11 years

• Mike Mendelsohn, 10 years

• Paul Rodgers, 14 years

• Peter Rueth, 10 years

• Mark Shipley, 10 years

• Evan Soibelman, 20 years

Courtesy of Evergreen Fire Protection District