When Dennis “Scotty” Wetklow started his career as a volunteer firefighter in Grandview Plaza 33 years ago, it was because he needed a job with benefits and the possibility of retirement.
He’s now retiring from his job as Division Chief of Operations with the Junction City Fire Department.
When Wetklow started his career in fighting fires, he was working in the automotive field. He was working on commission only at a local car dealership when he started as a volunteer firefighter. About six months after he started as a volunteer firefighter, Wetklow started with the JCFD.
He has since received his Bachelor’s Degree in fire science and earned promotions to end up where he is now.
Wetklow has learned a lot over his three decades with the department.
Though Wetklow does not consider himself a good teacher, he has successfully taught younger firefighters. He recalls, back when he was a captain with the JCFD, using Youtube videos to teach younger firefighters who to deal with certain types of fires, including basement fires. He did his best to teach them what he’d learned in his fire science classes.
“I was telling these guys, I said, ‘every one of you guys knows what it is like to be in a basement fire.’ I said, ‘you know, it’s like walking down a chimney. There’s only one way in and one way out,” he said.
After this training, Wetklow and one of the younger firefighters in his charge were dealing with such a fire and they were using a thermal imaging camera. Normally, Wetklow said, he would not have used the camera because of its sheer weight — “it’s like carrying an extra kit on your back,” he said. But this time, for this fire, he decided to make use of it to keep the newer firefighter — his protege — safe.
“I wanted to make sure everything went well,” Wetklow said.
And it did, mostly because the newer firefighter did exactly as he had been taught, by the book.
“He did exactly what we talked about when training them,” Wetklow said.
Because the other firefighter did exactly as he had been instructed to do, everything worked perfectly.
Wetklow has been in a number of basement fires and he said in all of them he has never seen the smoke vent from one of them quite as quickly as it did from this fire.
It’s easy to have such situations go wrong. According to Wetklow, if there’s too much moisture in the air, steam can form and bond with the smoke, causing it to grow heavy and sink low to the ground. This makes it harder to clear a basement of smoke.
“That’s one thing that sticks in my mind,” Wetklow said, after years of work for the JCFD.
This story contributed to his promotion. The fire chief at the time was impressed with the way Wetklow handled his trainees. He had taken what he’d learned in his college courses and brought it back to work with him to the younger firefighters he was training. He then helped them execute those lessons in the field with positive results.
He has learned how to deal with a variety of different personalities, especially with younger generations.
So many things have changed over the years, including technology and the way buildings are constructed. Buildings these days, Wetklow said, are built in such a way that when they catch fire, they’re much more prone to collapse, which can make structure fires less safe for firefighters.
There are fewer structure fires these days than there used to be, however, he said.
Newer firetrucks, he said, are more advanced than they used to. Trucks when he started did not even have air conditioning. The same goes for ambulances, which Wetklow compares to mobile emergency rooms.
When Wetklow started, the fire department was responsible for less. They did not conduct ambulance runs or perform some of the other duties they do today, such as extractions.
“This department has evolved so much from when I first started,” he said. “It’s just hard to keep track."
Working for the fire department has been a great experience for him.
But now it’s time to go.
Firefighting, namely working in the field, is a young man’s game.
This is one reason why Wetklow worked as hard as he did to earn promotions over the years. As he grew older, he said, he felt the years start to take a toll and realized if he wished to continue with the department, in a career he enjoyed, he would need to situate himself in a supervisory roll. He succeeded in doing that, but now Wetklow feels it’s time to say goodbye.
He said he will enjoy fishing and working on his lawn mowing business in his newfound spare time. When COVID-19 clears, he hopes to travel with loved ones.
But Wetklow will miss the JCFD.
“To me, it wasn’t just a job, it was a lifestyle,” Wetklow said. “These guys are like family. I spent over half my life there."