BURLINGTON It’s a big-time award for a small-town girl.
Jennifer Schaefer, 18, of Burlington has been selected from among about 3,000 nominees as the National Volunteer Fire Council’s 2014 Junior Firefighter of the Year.
“I think it’s great not only for the state but for our community that we are getting recognized,” Schaefer told fellow firefighters gathered at the Burlington Fire Station to honor her Monday. She will receive an expense-paid trip to the national awards banquet in Alexandria, Va., May 2, along with a $500 scholarship.
Schaefer has been a winner to the Burlington Fire Department for some time.
Burlington fire chief Karter Lesmann estimated Schaefer puts in close to 40 hours a week with the department. In addition to attending department activities, she is often at the station before and after school and on weekends to check on the building and help with routine operations. If there’s a fire, she’s right there, too, pumping water from the truck or helping in other ways.
Schaefer, the daughter of Chris and Wendy Schaefer, joined the fire department as a junior member more than four years ago. She became a senior fire fighter upon turning 18 in December and currently is completing the six months of probation necessary to become a full-fledged department member.
She said her interest in the junior firefighter program came from watching her father volunteer with the Burlington department.
“I thought that it was something exciting. It was something different,” she said.
As she attended training sessions and meetings, and saw how the fire service was such an important part of the community, Schaefer grew to love the volunteer work.
Junior firefighters in Burlington are able to experience just about everything that a senior firefighter experiences, Schaefer said. They are restricted from entering burning buildings or responding to vehicle crashes, but they assist at grass fires, help clean up after structure fires and assist in maintaining equipment.
Schaefer has attended the annual fire schools in Minot. She has trained in rope rescue, water rescue, hazard materials, extrication, first aid and other skills. She was the youngest North Dakota firefighter to take and pass the Fire Fighter 1 Essential Five test.
“I love training. I love going to classes,” Schaefer said.
She also is an instructor, helping train senior members as well as the department’s three junior firefighters. Youth can become junior fire fighters at age 14.
Burlington Mayor Jerome Gruenberg commended Schaefer for her involvement during the flood fight in 2011. Schaefer coordinated volunteers and food, keeping sandbagging and station operations running smoothly.
For Schaefer, it has been important not just to volunteer but to excel at it.
“If you don’t, you could endanger your own life or others,” she said. “I learned that you can’t really excel in the fire service by yourself. You definitely need encouragement and support from everybody around you, whether it’s your fellow fire fighters, your family, people who are in the fire service but not in your department.”
Upon graduating from Des Lacs-Burlington High School this spring, Schaefer plans to take online courses toward a fire science degree from Columbia Southern University in Alabama while continuing to volunteer for the Burlington Fire Department.
Schaefer said she is interested in a career in firefighting and would someday like to get involved in arson investigation.
Lesmann said there’s not much Schaefer doesn’t know about volunteer firefighting already. She’s currently picking up those skills, such as driving fire truck, that have had to wait until she turned 18.
“She’s right at officer material,” Lesmann said. “She’s ready to start leading people. I know she can do it.”