ROCHELLE — “How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!” — Maya Angelou
Four firefighters in the Ogle-Lee Fire Protection District were recognized at the 97th annual Rochelle Fireman’s Ball recently for their outstanding leadership and dedication as a first responder.
Those awarded with “Firefighter of the Year” were Tyler Carls with the Flagg Center station, Judy Williams with the Creston station, Don Arjes with the Steward station, and Paul Cooney with the Hillcrest station.
The fireman’s ball featured music, dancing, food, raffles and a silent auction, which is typical every year. This year there were a couple of changes including the event location along with moving the fundraiser from January. This was also the first year that the awards were given for Firefighter of the Year.
“It was a very humbling feeling to be recognized, considering all of the other people that it could have went to,” said Paul Cooney.
Cooney is a member with the Hillcrest Fire Department for the last 10 years and was selected by Hillcrest Fire Chief Steve Builta.
“He is deserving of this award, and we appreciate all he has done,” Builta said of Cooney. “He has made a tremendous impact with all of the folks he helps in Hillcrest and throughout the district.”
Cooney is also heavily involved in training the department’s members and works closely with Tyler Carls, also recognized at the fireman’s ball.
Rochelle Fire Chief Dave Sawlsville complimented Carls’ level of knowledge and ability at training in firefighting, especially being able to relate that to new members.
“T.C. really took over training for Flagg Center, and he’s also the training coordinator for the Rochelle station,” Sawlsville said about Carls. “He’s running these guys through drills…he brings a tremendous amount of knowledge, skills, and a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. It’s contagious.”
Carls, who started at the Flagg Center station in 2009, said he knew about the award, but didn’t know who would be chosen.
‘I’m super humbled by it. I wasn’t expecting the award. Even though I received it, it all comes back down to being a team,” Carls said modestly. “Helping to train people keeps me motivated. I was proud to be recognized.”
Don Arjes, who started as a firefighter in Flagg Center, is now a member of the Steward Fire Department. Sawlsville said Arjes always helps where needed, from maintenance on the fire engine to landscaping and snow removal.
"He's been with the district for 32 years. He does a lot of extra work around the station along with excellent attitude and abilities on calls," Galen Cardott, Steward Fire Chief said about Arjes.
Receiving the award as a member of the Creston Fire Station, Judy Williams plays a different role. One that is often overlooked, well-needed as chaplain, Williams provides comfort not only to victims involved in an emergency, but also to their families as well and to be a presence of compassion. Williams also provides for the emergency responders.
“These guys go in situations that most people run from,” Williams said. “I try to see how my guys are feeling. I know the families are distraught, and once I have helped the families I talk to the guys, I see how they are doing.”
Just hearing Williams speak lends a comforting feeling. She has been involved with the station for about 25 years and has helped those in need in more ways than one. Williams’ husband, Wayne, was a member of the Creston Fire Dept. and after he retired became a trustee with the OLFPD.
“If we are out on a bad call, Judy is so good about sitting with people, she comes to provide comfort to the family, or come to the hospital. She is on call 24/7,” Sawlsville said. “She will sit with them, get a cup of coffee, offer to make a phone call, pray with them.”
Although Williams wasn’t able to attend the fireman’s ball, she was presented with the award earlier this week at the fire station. The award came as a big surprise and was met with tears of joy. Williams said she first became an EMT with the department, followed by working at Rochelle Community Hospital in the emergency room before that position was eliminated.
“At the hospital, whenever the doctors had to give bad news, I would go with them and console the families. I was then ordained, and knew I was still supposed to be doing this even back then,” Williams said. “When one door shut, God opened the door really wide. He made it easy for me.”
Every Monday night, members from each of the four district stations meet for routine equipment maintenance and training exercises.
“Depending on the topic of the day, they will meet at 7, make sure the lights, sirens, radios are working. Sometimes they’ll do ladder work, hose work, or they will set up an obstacle course and black out their mask,” Sawlsville explained.
The training helps firefighters familiarize themselves with procedures that they can carry into the real-time emergency calls.
Although they are technically paid to be on call, volunteer firefighters often sacrifice their personal time and sleep and use their own resources when responding to a call. The OLFPD provides the gear and training, and most volunteers are scheduled on call along with their regular jobs.