South Dakota Woman Steps Up to Help Her Community as a Volunteer Firefighter

Daily Point of Light # 6049 Jul 21, 2017
Kathy Deml participating in a controlled burn during a training excercise./Courtesy Kathy Deml

Kathy Deml’s life has changed tectonically in the past 10 years. A long time single mom, she saw her son off to college and her life took a welcome turn.  She met her now husband, Tim Deml, eight years ago and the couple moved to Rockerville, South Dakota, a Black Hills community just outside of Rapid City. Wanting to get to know their new community and give back, Kathy and Tim joined the Rockerville Volunteer Fire Department in March, 2009, spending months training to become a certified fire fighter and medical responder. While her husband is on the front lines of firefighting, Deml, now 61, serves as supply officer and often acts as mentor to assist newer members in learning about the fire department, the training and the equipment. She also volunteers for the American Red Cross in the Black Hills.

Kathy Deml/Courtesy Kathy Deml

What inspires you to volunteer?

It doesn’t feel like I’m doing anything different than what should be done without expecting any rewards or compensation. If you notice someone is hurt, you try to help. If their house is on fire, it needs to be put out. It’s just doing the right thing. I would want to be treated the same way if the situation was reversed.

Describe your volunteer role with the Rockerville VFD, an all-volunteer organization. How do you fit it? 

I am a volunteer firefighter with Rockerville VFD – both certified as a structure firefighter and a wildland firefighter, and also an Emergency Medical Responder so I am able to respond to most of the calls that we receive. In the day-to-day world outside of the emergencies, I am the supply officer and a truck captain for one of our response vehicles. The Supply Officer keeps gear, equipment, tools, snacks and water on hand. As a truck captain, it is my responsibility to keep my vehicle stocked, clean and ready to respond at all times.

Where does the Red Cross come in?

I volunteer with Red Cross with the DAT (Disaster Action Team) Response as a team captain, dispatch and a caseworker. We are typically called to scenes of disasters, mainly fires, where people may be displaced from their home temporarily or long term. We are able to assist with immediate needs such as lodging, food, clothing, medicines and other miscellaneous items as necessary. Caseworkers follow up with the families and assist with the recovery process.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your volunteer service? We understand you helped support families who lost children in a fire recently? 

Each call is unique and needs to be handled as an individual case. Often, the reason you are called to a scene is not what you end up addressing. One instance is a tragic fire in a small town about 50 miles from Rapid City. As Red Cross DAT, we were called to a structure fire and we knew before we got there that there were fatalities. What we found out later was there were 5 young children that were trapped in the fire. Some of the children lived there, two were spending the night for a birthday celebration. Even though we were there for the families that lived in this dwelling, we were also very involved with families and friends of the deceased children. New firefighters who were on their first fire needed assistance dealing with the tragedy as well as the auxiliary members and their families. The community was devastated by the loss and we were there to listen and comfort if nothing else that day. Red Cross had mental health professionals on scene to provide additional assistance.

With the fire department, I’m not the person who will rush into the building and put out the fire, I may be the one bringing the tender full of water, or the bottled water for the hot, tired people who come out after fighting the fire, or making sure their equipment is on appropriately.

Kathy (second from left) supporting firefighters with refreshments during a grass fire as a Red Cross volunteer./Courtesy Kathy Deml

Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?

There is no feeling equal to knowing that somehow, you made a difference in someone’s life. Even if it’s not acknowledged, you know you did your best to assist them.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

The most rewarding part is working with the teams from the fire department and Red Cross, knowing you are there together, dealing with the same obstacles, and doing the best you can to assist as a team.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter your age or gender, there is always something that you can do. Pick something that you are passionate about and put your heart into it.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

That I’m just a very small cog in this big wheel! I would not be as involved without the great leaders, especially my husband, who have encouraged me to push myself so I could be involved in these different areas of volunteerism. If you are a leader in your group, pull the new people in. Get them involved with something meaningful, ask them how they want to help, be a sounding board for them when things get difficult, or they won’t continue to show up. Volunteers are hard to find and hard to keep.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Kathy? Visit All For Good to discover local volunteer opportunities.

Jia Gayles