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Answering the call


Steven Udelhofen spends his days in a classroom on Des Moines Area Community College’s Ankeny campus, teaching students the ins and outs of criminal justice. But at the end of the day, he knows the next 14 hours could bring any number of emergencies and adventures, all of which he accepts willingly.

“It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when you go into the grocery store and see someone you performed CPR on walking down the aisle of the store with their grandkids, and they have no idea who you are,” said Udelhofen, a volunteer for the Ankeny Fire Department.

He is one of more than 60 volunteer firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians who make up the Ankeny Fire Department, each sacrificing hours away from their families in order to save lives, help those in need and train for future emergencies. But each finds the job incredibly rewarding, just as Udelhofen does monthly in the aisles of the grocery store.

In 1990, he responded to a request in the newspaper for volunteer firefighters, and saw it as his opportunity to serve the community.

“My father was a firefighter, and I though that would be something that would make him proud,” he said. “It was something that always interested me growing up in a fireman’s family.”

The first months of initial training were intense, and have subsequently been followed by thousands of hours of weekly training and additional instruction, such as the 1,000 hours required to become a paramedic.

Once Udelhofen completed the training, the calls started rolling in, sometimes as he and his family were sitting down for dinner, other times in the middle of the night. He now averages 200 to 225 ambulance calls and 150 to 160 fire calls annually. Until September, when he became a full-time instructor at DMACC, he juggled his volunteer duties with his law practice and work as an adjunct instructor.

“It certainly was stressful because you could be up all night long or get two or three calls in the evening and then find yourself dragging the next day,” he said. “With the attorney thing I was working sometimes until midnight anyways.”

Udelhofen and Ben Shour, a volunteer and owner of Back to Nature, have learned the value of an understanding family, particularly wives who get left in restaurants and at the dinner table. Without family support, they couldn’t do what they love.

“Every time I do something more for people, it just advances my passion and desire,” said Shour, who grew up dreaming of becoming a firefighter and hopes to make the move from volunteer to full-time firefighter in the coming years. “It’s very demanding, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I can’t explain it.”

From 6 p.m. to 5 a.m., he is “100 percent fire department and EMS,” and commits even more time on the weekends. He responds to as many as 40 to 50 emergency calls each week, though some days are busier than others.

That schedule, and the situations they find themselves in, forces the volunteers to establish a deep sense of family, for better or worse. Udelhofen said new volunteers are accepted immediately, and they take care of one another, though disputes occasionally arise.

Dennis Frisk, a professional firefighter with the Des Moines Fire Department, and Ann Lazear, a paramedic with Frazier Ambulance Service, have taken their skills and applied them in the volunteer arena with the Ankeny department, where they are also able to complete additional training that is required for their full-time jobs. But they find greater satisfaction in helping the people in their own community.

“It’s fun, it’s exciting and it’s a big payback,” said Lazear, who has served the department for one and a half years, initially as an EMT. Her work in Ankeny inspired her to complete additional training in order to become a paramedic.

Frisk, whose father was the fire chief in Ankeny, became a firefighter in Des Moines 1977 and an Ankeny volunteer in 1991. In that time, he has delivered more than 20 babies, rescued one infant who was stuck in a toilet, assisted children who had been struck by cars and was on the scene of the Younkers fire at Merle Hay Mall.

“It’s all part of the job,” he said. “I don’t consider myself a hero.”

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