by Jeremy Rickman
Peoria Heights Emissary for PeoriaArea.com
Living here in Peoria Heights I've looked up at the top of the Peoria Heights Tower for a billowing cape, watched the skies hoping the catch a glimpse of the hammer wielding son of Odin, and every time I see a yellow VW bug I wonder if that might be Bumblebee (sorry he was not a Camero when I was a kid).
However nestled at the bottom of the Heights Tower is a building where local superheroes reside. Men and women that leap into action when the call for help goes out. Mild mannered and can be seen sitting next to us at dinner or seen mowing the lawn across the street. Those who when the skies darken or trouble arises leap into action to lend a hand to those who call out in distress and in some cases cannot. Established in 1917 the local fire department currently has a team of about 30 volunteers.
From the days past with fighting the fires at the Pabst Blue Ribbon factory, to just recently being one of the first responders to the tornado that tore through the community of Washington. I happen to be lucky to live across the street from the Fire Chief Greg Walters and next door his son Greg Walters II. On many occasions I've seen first hand how quickly they leap into action.
just a couple weeks ago I arrived home to see one of the fire trucks sitting across the street running and lights on. Greg outside with a stopwatch and a cell phone. Within 10 minutes ten of the volunteer firefighters and EMT's arrived. Trading phone booths for their trucks shorts and t-shirts were replaced with full "Bunker/Turnout gear" ready to enter the home that was being used for testing purposes hoses at the ready. The sounds of the neighborhood kids riding up on their bikes talking in excited tones as they watched these real life heros as they worked together making sure that the corner was closed off setting up a perimeter to ensure the safety of everyone. My own son looking on and making the comment, "Wow! Cool!" They train various ways like this once to twice a month.
Not to long ago however a real emergency came up. The Washington dispatcher putting out the call that the communications building was down and all available responders were called out to assist on a Unseasonal day in November 2013. That afternoon I watched the skies darken and no sooner did I hear that a tornado had touched down across the Illinois river in various town I saw a mad rush from the homes across the street. Rushing to the awaiting truck father and son were off joined by many members of the PHFD.
I had a chance to sit down with Greg Walters II to ask about that day. "My father and I were in the Heights working clean up on the first round of storms. Felled trees and the like. We had reports of a second line of storms rolling in and Chief Walters had 2 teams on the ready for the second as a tornado was possible.
Greg Walters II was on the second team that was dispatched to Washington that day and remembers getting to the staging area at the Cefcu location. "I spoke with Chief Walters to let him know we had reports from East Peoria and other locations to see if we were needed there as well but we ended up staying to assist with citizens at the staging area. One moment that stands out was a father and son that arrived. The father was in tears as he had lost everything and when asked for help was so shaken and in shock was only able to answer no."
I asked him about that day and if they were prepared for a situation like this, "Nothing really prepares you for a tornado of that size. But we knew that families, kids, even pets were going to need help. We had no idea how many would be able to answer the calls so our first thought was be there for anything that might be needed. Traffic control, assisting with digging people out, car extractions and transporting injured people to local hospitals. It is true about training kicking in. We saw a lot of displaced people. Homes, cars, lives that now are forever changed and I wanted to make sure that we could make sure as many people as possible were safe." I saw Greg drift away slightly thinking back to that afternoon. Knowing that his life as well was changed witnessing the destruction first hand. "No one wanted to go home. There was no thoughts of being tired or hungry. Just that we all wanted to make sure that everyone was safe. What stands out most is that everyone not just firemen, police, and medical personnel were helping. Everyone on the ground were heroes that day."
Speaking with Chief Greg Wilson I learned he was with the first team from the Heights. When asked about that day he mentioned that he called to make sure that they had one truck standing by as well as that moment when he learned of the tornado touching down. "I called over to advise the PHFD was ready to send a truck over with a crew of 5 volunteers. While speaking with East Peoria dispatch I over heard Washington Chief Mike Vaughn say, "We need help. The tornado has touched down. Send everyone." And we were enroute. We reported our location on the way and were initially advised of the staging location however were soon routed to respond to the Georgetown Commons complex. When we arrived we saw that we arrived at the same time as one of the Washington EMS teams. I was behind our truck in the command vehicle and when we got there the rain was coming down again with limited visibility. "
I asked him about what stood out most about arriving and he replied. "I saw our truck stop and in the rain I saw a man walk up to our truck and was directed to come back and speak with me. Our team of 5 were getting geared up to begin assisting. Getting out of my car the man approached drenched and simply said, " There are 300 residents here and I've only seen 10." That man was Washington mayor Gary Manier."
With this Chief Walters pulled his team of 5 in and advised them all of what they might see walking into the this scene. Making them aware that this will be unlike anything they may have seen before.
Thankfully that day most residents were out of town or in church and only approximately 40 people were home that day. His first team able to help rescue 8 people. He made mention of one woman who was leaving as the tornado struck spinning her car only to have the car stuck and the woman unable to get out. His soothing and calming words able to calm her down knowing that they were there to help.
They may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound but to me it seems like Chief Walters and the Peoria Heights Fire Department have a sixth sense making sure that at any hint of trouble they are ready to provide quick and full support to not only our community but others as well.
I did have one final question that I've always wanted to ask however.
"Chief Walters how many calls have you had to rescue a cat from a tree?" Shaking my hand he simply said, "Zero."
One final message or PSA of sorts from the whole Peoria Heights Fire Department as a whole. Please ensure that smoke and carbon monoxide dctors are operating. If they aren't get them operating. Your husband may set it off every time he cooks, but your going to want that annoying beep at 3 am if the family cat knocks over fish tank pouring water on the power strip below.
The Peoria Heights Fire Department is located at 4901 North Prospect Road and their non-emergency phone number is 309-686-2375. They provide a staff or trained volunteer Firefighter/Rescue personnel. Including trained EMT and paramedics.