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Solon firefighter leads by example

 Firefighter Candace Wetter after she dragged herself and her nozzleman out of a window at a practice burn gone horribly wrong in October 2012.

Firefighter Candace Wetter after she dragged herself and her nozzleman out of a window at a practice burn gone horribly wrong in October 2012.

By Judy Reed

Solon firefighter Candace Wetter loves what she does. And she is determined to not only be the best firefighter she can be, but to help her fellow firefighters hone their skills as well. At the tender of age of 22, she has already been in the fire service for 7 years, and encountered numerous dangerous situations, including one as an intern, that could’ve scarred her for life.

Wetter comes from a firefighter family, and started as a junior firefighter in Wisconsin, when she was 15 years old. “My mom is a fire chief, my dad is a firefighter and my younger sister is a junior firefighter, all for the same department in our hometown where I grew up. I lived in the fire station growing up and have always been involved or around it in some fashion. This was something I just knew I wanted to do,” she explained. “I was told once that I would never make it as a full time firefighter. Well I am doing everything in my power to prove them wrong.”

That kind of determination and admitted bullheadedness has served her well.

N-Solon-FF-Candace-Wetter-pullquoteAs a junior firefighter, she said her job was to run around and take care of little tasks, such as retrieving equipment from the trucks or cleaning things. “More importantly, we were receiving on the job training and experience long before we even graduated high school. That helped me tremendously, because I such a significant head start,” she said.

Wetter took fire classes while still in high school, and worked her way into a firefighter position at 18 years old. In May 2012, she was offered a position of intern Firefighter/EMT for a department in a suburb of Madison Wisconsin, and a job as an adjunct fire instructor at a local college. Under the intern program, the firehouse was home to her and other interns while they worked on their associates degree in fire science, but got on the job guidance and training. It was there that she had a life-changing experience with fire.

Firefighter Candace Wetter wore full turnout gear when she competed in the Gazelle 5K earlier this year, just to prove she could.

Firefighter Candace Wetter wore full turnout gear when she competed in the Gazelle 5K earlier this year, just to prove she could.

Just five months later, on October 27, her department was invited to attend a multi-department live fire-training burn. Their burn room was in the garage, three feet below the foundation. Some of the instructors asked her and the other interns if they wanted to go in for the last burn. She and three others were on the hose, and she was second, making her the command officer. But once they got into the room, all did not go as planned. Her third and fourth crewmembers disappeared, and her nozzleman (in front of her) began to panic. She couldn’t figure out where the other two went and kept looking for them. When the blackest smoke she had ever seen dropped from the ceiling, she knew something had gone wrong and they need to get out of there. But her nozzleman could not move; he was paralyzed with fear, and she had to drag him out, while flames licked at her ears and her mask began to melt. As she reached the steps, the room flashed on them and she thought she was going to die as a 19-year-old firefighter. She caught a tiny ray of light out of a corner of her mask and finally bailed out a window with her nozzleman. She kept crawling, just wanting the burning to stop. She suffered first and second-degree burns, smoke inhalation, and carbon monoxide poisoning. Everyone had made it out; her third team member, who was also her best friend had left because of an equipment problem, and the fourth crewmember left as well. Neither had told her they were leaving. She also noted that at least nine rules of the National Fire Protection Association had been broken by those setting up the burn; and no one was watching or controlling the fire.

FF Wetter and other runners at the Gazelle 5K.

FF Wetter and other runners at the Gazelle 5K.

It took Wetter quite awhile to recover from the experience, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally, as well. “We as firefighters and first responders deal with these types of things on a daily basis,” explained Wetter. “That is why we stress highly on the importance of firefighter mental well-being and behavioral health. We cannot help others, if we ourselves are hurting.”

She said the fire defiantly changed her and her outlook on a lot of things. “Since that fire, I have taken every single training or class that I had the opportunity to take. My best friends and I nearly died and I am hell bound to make every attempt at not letting history repeat itself. I grew up learning that I would make mistakes in my life. And when those mistakes happened, you learn from them, get back up, dust your boots off and do it again; until you got it right. This fire just took a little bit longer to stand back up from.”

Wetter said that her nozzleman’s brain and body shut down because he couldn’t figure out what to do. “That is why we train so much as firefighters. So when we may not have a quick answer to the problem, we will still have our training and field experience to back us up and come up with a solution. It is also why we have such strict requirements on mandatory training hours and academy curriculum.”

Wetter said she now fights fires from a much smarter standpoint. “We are constantly maintaining our situational awareness and observing changing conditions. We also use a risk-benefit analysis; what are our gains vs. what are our risks? About 100 firefighters die in the line of duty every single year. That is something I keep in the back of my head when I am on a scene or fire. We will make every attempt we can to do what we were sworn to do; save lives and protect property.  We also will make every attempt to bring all of our members home, after every call. When you come close to losing everything, you make every attempt to keep your crew up to speed and well trained. Again, that is why we train constantly. I am not here for myself; I am here for them; to make sure they make it back to their families at the end of the day.”

And Wetter does just that. She moved to Michigan in 2014, and has worked for Solon Fire Department for a little over two years, and helps train new recruits. She also works for Plainfield Fire Department and Life EMS. Solon Fire Chief Jeff Drake nominated Wetter this spring for a scholarship to the 2016 Fire Departments Instructor Conference.

He wrote that he nominated Wetter “due to her extreme passion to serve the community and her unwavering commitment to improve fireground safety through her extensive donation of time and talent to train new recruits on fire ground skills. In a very unselfish manner, FF Wetter is willing and able to attend various regional and national training seminars and then donate endless hours in sharing this knowledge within the SFD.” He went on to talk about the recruits she was training, and the countless hours of training classes she takes at her own cost.”

Wetter was awarded the all-expenses paid scholarship to attend the conference in Indianapolis, in April. “Thousands of firefighters attend this conference,” remarked Wetter. “I spent a week learning from some of the best chiefs, training officers and seasoned firefighters throughout the country. I took many different classes, ranging from firefighter mental health to rapid intervention and self-survival classes. I am extremely honored to have had that opportunity. I have already planned trainings at my departments to pass the knowledge on and to grow my departments so we are more prepared and proactive.”

Wetter is an inspiration to others around her, sometimes without knowing it. Earlier this spring, she ran the Gazelle 5K in Grand Rapids, in full firefighter gear, which she said weighs about 90 pounds. An email and photo of Wetter was sent to the GR Fire Chief from deputy city attorney Elizabeth White, asking if anyone knew who she was. In the email, White noted that she followed behind the firefighter all the way. “I’m 50 years old, and I don’t run much as a general rule. But as long as this girl kept running, so did I. I was so inspired by her determination, I [darn] near broke my personal 5K record!” She asked if anyone knew who she was to pass on her appreciation. “She inspired a lot of women today!” she wrote.

Wetter said she did it because she wanted a challenge. “I tend to get bored easily and wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I ran in my full turnout gear with my SCBA (self contained breathing apparatus). Someone told me that I couldn’t finish the 5k in my gear, so again, I was bound and determined to prove them wrong.”

The Post asked Wetter if she had any advice for young people who might want to become a firefighter. “I would tell any young person aspiring to be a firefighter that he/she needs to pace themselves. Also:

  • The fire service is a journey not a destination. You must first learn how to crawl, then walk, then jog, then run.
  • Enthusiasm, dedication & passion are an absolute must with this job, and they are all things we cannot teach from a book.
  • We never stop training and learning. From the first day on the job, to graduating from academy, to fighting fires every day. You must make it part of your life, because it can so easily take your life.
  • You need to have a hobby. Something other than fire or ems. Too much of something can never be good.
  • You need to have your crew’s back. Through thick and thin. Bottom line—we are a family.”

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