SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. --
Tech. Sgt. Thomas Dunlap is in the middle of CPR training with the O’Fallon Fire Department when the station’s alarms begin to blare. Within minutes, the room clears out, and Dunlap finds himself in full bunker gear, winding through traffic on a speeding fire engine.
Dunlap serves alongside Army Maj. Nikki Blystone as a volunteer firefighter at the O’Fallon FD. As well as performing their duties as a logistics officer and an NCO in charge of radio frequency transmissions, Blystone and Dunlap help respond to the department’s over 900 annual calls.
Blystone, U.S. Transportation Command, began firefighting while she was in college. She said that she was applying to emergency medical technician school when she was asked if she was willing to be a firefighter as well.
“My first thought was ‘Absolutely. They’ll let me do that?’” said Blystone. “I didn’t know any female firefighters at the time, so I was really excited.”
Blystone said that some of the best moments with the O’Fallon FD come from educating the community about being a female firefighter.
“I see some of the little girls that come up when we do a truck display and ask them, ‘Are you going to be a firefighter?’ and the look in their eyes is ‘Oh, I can do that?’” said Blystone. “I hope one day that’s not a question.”
Dunlap, 375th Communications Squadron, began his firefighting career in his home state of West Virginia when he was just 15-years-old.
“My best friend’s dad was an assistant chief at one of the local departments,” said Dunlap. “Hanging out with him around the department kind of got me into it.”
When he was assigned to Scott, Dunlap’s choice to live in O’Fallon was based on the opportunity to serve as a firefighter.
“Fortunately, it’s not too far from the base,” he said. “As soon as I got here and settled in, I came over to the fire department and started hanging out and seeing how they work and operate.”
While firefighting and military service complement each other, juggling both jobs at once requires some sacrifice.
“Trying to balance the normal work schedule, Monday through Friday and maybe having to work weekends, and then trying to do firefighting in your off-time, it can be difficult,” said Dunlap. “It’s definitely an interesting balance.”
Dunlap describes volunteering with O’Fallon as a “win-win” because not only does it enable him to serve his community, it also helps him stay in shape for the military.
“On 120-degree days, you could be running a fire,” Dunlap said. “You could be suited up in bunker gear and now all of a sudden you go into this burning building where it’s 500 degrees, 1000 degrees. If you’re not physically fit, it could take a toll on you.”
Blystone also describes a symbiotic relationship between the two jobs. She said that, in some ways, her military experience makes her a better firefighter.
“I’m a 20-year logistician in the Army, so when we go to a long call, I start to think logistics: ‘What do we need to make sure everybody’s fed? To make sure everybody’s got what they need?’” said Blystone. “Everybody’s got their jobs on the scene, so if I’m not actively engaged in a fire, I like to try and help with other ways I can through my experiences from the military.”
Her firefighting career has also helped her to integrate into Scott’s surrounding community.
“It’s hard to get a sense of community when you’re moving every year or every other year,” said Blystone. “I really feel much more in touch with the community and a part of the community, especially as a firefighter.”
Dunlap said that serving the community is the best part of being a volunteer firefighter.
“In good times or bad times, you’re there for the community and helping them pull through tragedy, severe weather, fires, wrecks, accidents, whatever the case may be,” said Dunlap. “[You’re] able to show the community that there’s people to support them.”