Photos by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette Capt. Holly Volz of the Fort Wayne Fire Department has always wanted to be known as a firefighter, not a “female firefighter.”
Volz has several helmets from years with the FWFD where she serves as a captain, working out of Station 8 on Rothman Road.
Monday, January 09, 2017 10:03 pm
Answering the call
Mikaela Conley | For The Journal Gazette
In an instant the fire grew and the whole house was immersed in smoke.
There was immediate darkness and heat – it was enough to make someone doubt they would get out alive.
Moments before, Capt. Holly Volz of the Fort Wayne Fire Department had led her team to the basement. Her battalion chief thought the fire was out and had ordered them to check the conditions there.
"I got three steps down. The guys were behind me. It was something in the smoke I was seeing down there – I knew something was really wrong," she said. "I just knew something bad was going to happen if we went down there."
The team turned and started back up the stairs. And that’s when the flames erupted again.
Volz knew she had to get everyone out right then. But she couldn’t find them.
"Everyone was disoriented; everyone was looking for a way out," she said.
And finally, she found the front window and escaped.
The team didn’t know at the time that there was natural gas leaking from the basement. Because of this, every time they thought they had the fire out, the gas would build up again and reignite.
"If we would have been down in that basement, we would have died," Volz said. "I call that my real divine intervention moment where God said, ‘No, you’re not going down there.’ "
And for Volz, that’s the type of situation she faces every day.
Volz has been a member of the Fort Wayne Fire Department for 31 years and, at 50 years old, is the oldest female firefighter in the department. She is one of 17 female city firefighters.
But this profession wasn’t always in her plan.
At 19 years old, she was enrolled in an exploratory police academy program at IPFW, but when her mom called her and said the fire department was hiring, she went for it.
"I have no idea why I was hired," she said. "I think it was part of what was required in 1986, we needed to have so many women and minorities."
But she had to move past those thoughts. Her instructor at the academy told her it didn’t matter how she got there, it mattered what she was going to do.
"When I first came on, I didn’t want to be a female (firefighter). I just wanted to be in the engine house, I wanted to be me and I wanted to be accepted," she said. "I didn’t want to be a female firefighter. I wanted to be a firefighter."
She quickly had to learn how to keep up with men who were taller and stronger than she was by learning different techniques to get things done.
"I don’t want to be a liability to the Fort Wayne Fire Department. I want to be an asset to them when I leave this engine house, when I make fire calls, when I make medical runs, not because of my gender, but because that’s what gives me pride," Volz said. "Not being a female firefighter, that’s not where I find the pride; for me, it is in this job in general."
As the captain of three other firefighters at Fire Station 8 on Rothman Road, her job is to manage the team on the scene of every call.
Volz works 24-hour shifts and has 48 hours off. She arrives at the station at 6:30 a.m. and prepares for the day, taking the previous captain’s gear off the truck and replacing it with her own.
She never knows whether it will be a day with no calls or a day with 22, she said. But she always has to be prepared for that alarm to go off and for what might be there when the crew arrive on scene.
"I try to imagine the scenarios in my mind that I may run into before I get there – try to formulate somewhat of a plan," she said.
Brandon Moga, who has been in the department for 13 years, said everyone acts differently when the tone goes off.
"I think your heart kind of speeds up a bit," Moga said. "We have two tones – one for fire and one for medical, so right away you can tell if it’s a medical run, you’re not going to be putting your life in danger as much."
Steve Messerschmidt, who has been with the department over 30 years, agreed.
"Well when you first come on, you know, the tone goes off and your heart just starts racing," Messerschmidt said.
The firefighters have to be prepared for many types of situations, such as fires, smoke investigations, medical calls, search and rescue, dangerous chemicals and car wrecks.
"And then you walk away from these runs and you take these memories with you," Volz said.
Sometimes the call doesn’t end well. When that happens, firefighters have different ways to handle the stress of the job.
Volz said she enjoys gardening when she’s not on the job, but her husband, who is also a Fort Wayne firefighter, is also important. Volz and her husband, Tom, have a 15-year-old son.
"He and I know what the department is like. We know the pressures of the job, so when the other person is dealing with something, we understand it," she said. "I think it’s a real challenge for spouses and significant others to understand that without taking it personally."
Volz said she is proud of how the Fort Wayne department takes care of its firefighters with training, safety policies and evolving technology.
"The firefighter life expectancy is low and they want that to be higher, so they’re really trying to implement more of a safety conscious attitude than they used to," she said.
The training is crucial. Each firefighter is required to complete a minimum of two hours of training each day they are on the job. This includes either hands-on training, special videos and PowerPoints, or crew meetings where they discuss calls from the last day they worked.
"The cliché at the end of the day, you do what you were trained to do to the best of your ability," said Thim Reed, who started at the department in 1989 after serving in the Navy.
But even training can’t always prepare a firefighter for what will happen when the tones go off.
In 1993, Volz was working downtown at Station 1. It was the first week of September and a thunderstorm was slowly rolling in, while call after call flooded the radios.
A massive bolt of lightning had struck a few blocks over, and the fire alarm call soon followed.
Volz and her crew at that time flipped on the lights and sirens.
"There was this deluge of rain – you couldn’t see," Volz said. "You could smell a little bit of that burning structure fire smell. It was just coming in sheets."
Volz’s engine turned the corner and they saw Saint Mary’s Catholic Church, a wooden, architectural symbol of the city, engulfed in flames.
There was no way the church was going to be saved.
"We worked hard. We tried. We wanted so bad to make a difference," she said. "You want to make a difference on that run. You get somewhere and it’s the worst possible thing that could be happening at this address, and you want to make that better for that person or this place. You want to take away whatever bad thing is happening and, sometimes you can. And sometimes you can’t."
The fire, which was pictured in the New York Times, was a huge one to fight, Volz said.
All this time training, responding to calls, and living together, Volz said, forms a unique type of relationship within the crew.
Because a firefighter spends one-third of their life with their crew, the station becomes another home, she said. Firefighters take their own bedding, bring in their own food and sometimes spend more time with their crew than anyone else. Firefighters see the ups and downs that their crew mates go through in their lives.
"It kind of bonds you into a strange family," Volz said.