John Pennings
John Pennings

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MARINETTE — Thanksgiving Day six settings circled the table at the at the Avenue Grille and Bar inside the Best Western Riverfront Inn. 

One setting each for Assistant Chief John Pennings and his wife Jill; firefighter Christopher Erickson and his wife April; and firefighters Steve Kunick and Levi Sanborn. With the reservation scheduled for 11:30 a.m. the two wives and members of the City of Marinette Fire Department Crew 1, arrived at the restaurant, bringing their appetites and cravings for a Thanksgiving fill of family, friends and all the fixings. 

Every year, for on-duty firefighting crews, holiday meals carry an added component of apprehension that constantly drums in the back of the mind for each firefighter, awaiting the next emergency call. This year, the work rotation for Crew 1 means Christmas and New Years on duty as well.

MEAL INTERRUPTED

Pennings managed to finish off a dinner salad, but at 11:40 a.m. the tones erupted and the call came in over the portable radios strapped around each firefighter’s shoulder. Like winds of urgency, Crew 1 bolted, leaving behind full plates of hot food and the wives, Jill and April. 

When the tones resonate, whether one is sitting with family in the middle of a holiday meal, residing within the restful depth of sleep, or polishing the luminous red that contours of the big ladder truck and the fire engine, everything stops and priorities zero in on the firefighters primary mission: protecting life, property and the environment from fire and other hazards.

“It happens all the time, it’s a part of life,” Jill Pennings said regarding her husband’s work. “You just accept it. It is what it is. I am proud of him. I am very happy he has chosen this profession.”

By the time Crew 1 returned from the call, Jill and April sat optimistically over their own empty plates, unphased by their husbands’ earlier and abrupt departure.    

“It happens on birthdays, holidays and all that good stuff,” said April, whose husband Christopher Erickson started out as a volunteer firefighter, answering his pager when- and wherever he might be. “They just take off and go. And you plan around it.” 

IMPORTANCE OF FAMILY

To a firefighter, family plays a huge role. Not only are some members of the Marinette Fire Department generational firefighters, following in their fathers, mothers, and grandparents’ footsteps, but they all remain devoted to family and community. For some, their chosen career paths evolved from that sense of giving back to the people around them.

“If you have small kids it can be a hard thing to miss Christmas day,” said Pennings. 

Kunick agreed. He celebrated the birth of his third child, a boy Oct. 2. He said a bond exists not only among firefighters but also among the family members.

Additionally, spending 24 hours on duty every three days with the same co-workers, only serves to further extend a Marinette firefighter’s family. 

“We have always called (the station) our second home,” Pennings said. “We spend a third of our lives here … It’s nice to have that camaraderie and that kind of support system. If someone is having a ‘down’ day and needs help, there is always someone here.” 

For Sanborn, having that second family makes up for missing those home holiday events. As a third generation firefighter, he knows his family understands that sacrifice, particularly his father, James, who also served as a firefighter.

“I feel like he kind of lives through me,” Sanborn said. “My father has a lot of passion for firefighting and I think it is cool that we share the same passion.”

801 (AND COUNTING) REASONS TO BE THANKFUL

Monday, the number of emergency tones the City of Marinette Fire Department answered this year stood at 801, representing everything from fires, rescues, medical emergencies, car accidents to gas line ruptures and others. With Thursday’s brief turkey dinner interlude, the number ticked up once again.

Each call comes with risk. Across the United States, according to the National Fire Protection Association, 64 firefighters died in 2018 from injuries related to on-the-job duties. While those numbers represent a continued 5-year trend of under 70 deaths per year, data can only quantify the inherent risk a firefighter faces each time he or she dons the helmet and climbs into the fire engine.

Each number represents a loss that touches a multitude of family, friends and community; and also represents one more reason for a strong support network.

“Ultimately, the tax payer is our boss. But it is really nice that the end result is that the community has always supported us,” Pennings said.

Now and again, especially during the holidays, cookies, cards or other snacks tend to accumulate on a second-floor table at the station, thanks to a generous and grateful community. 

“I think the public shows its gratitude,” said firefighter Christopher Erickson. “But that is not why we do the job.”

In the context of actual firefighting, Erickson described his motivation as a firefighter. 

“You go in and you get a good knockdown on a fire and stop it all together,” he said. “Or during medical calls, if you can be there to help save someone else; all those things bring a sense of accomplishment. But we are not looking for the ‘thank you.’”

MOSTLY, JUST FOUR THANKFUL FIREFIGHTERS 

Holidays at the Marinette Fire Station, bring a day of “relaxed” duties. Work still exists, like inspecting air packs, medical equipment and fire trucks to ensure everything stands at the ready to answer any emergencies; but other duties are laid aside for the day.

Thursday, members of Crew 1 found a few moments to reflect on reasons they might be thankful. High on their lists, the opportunity to serve as a firefighters in Marinette. 

“To be honest, I couldn’t nail just one (thing I am thankful for),” Erickson said. “But being able and healthy enough to do this job is one of them.”

And that is something for which the Marinette community can also be thankful.