Volunteer vs. career crews: 'The fire doesn't know the difference'

After 2 year-old Keoni Holt lost his life in a Brooklyn Center, Minn. apartment fire earlier this month, his family told Fox 9 they pleaded with firefighters to go in and save their son. Fire Chief Lee Gatlin explains his crew's version of what happened.

Chief Gatlin says there are no words to describe how he felt learning Keoni lost his life in the apartment fire on the 4500 block of 58th Avenue North the morning of Jan. 16.

"It hurt me to my heart," he said. "It was very hard. It was hard for our department."

He was first on scene. He'd been delivering Meals on Wheels to the very building the fire started in. Even in civilian clothes, he tended to the scene. Their stations are not staffed regularly during the day, so all he could do was wait until volunteer fighters arrived.

"I tried to knock the fire down several times with fire extinguishers but it really didn't do any good because there was a lot of fire, a lot of heat, a lot of smoke," he said.

Brooklyn Center had 8 firefighters on scene, and had to knock that fire down first before they could do anything. They said it took about 10 minutes to put the fire out and find Keoni.

"If we're not safe, we can't make sure anyone else is safe," Chief Gatlin said.

He said crews did the best they could to get to Keoni, and a critical stress meeting was called the next day.

"This only helps us to push that message even more: Prevention, prevention, prevention," he said.

The Chief of Bloomington Fire Department, deemed the largest on-call department in the state, says there are key differences between career and volunteer firefighters.

"Career firefighters can do some or all of that training while they're on duty. Paid on-call or volunteer firefighters have to do that training in addition to their response duties and in addition to their full-time job," Chief Ulysses Seal said

The Brooklyn Center fire crews, while considered on-call "volunteers," do get paid for duties, training and public education events. They do not get paid for responding to fire calls.

Bloomington's volunteer crews gets paid $5 per fire call whether they're on-scene for five minutes or five hours.

"The fire doesn't know the difference, and quite honestly, most of the time, the people that have called 911 and asked for help don't know the difference, they just want somebody to come and help them," Chief Seal said.

More: How to help the Holt family

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