First responders and their families share experiences at Saturday banquet
Woodburn resident Patricia Hershberger knows with utmost familiarity the signature beeping sound that indicates someone, somewhere in the city is in need. It's the sound that she has lived with for decades, the sound that means her husband — Woodburn Fire District volunteer Warde Hershberger — will drop what he's doing and rush out the door.
Hershberger shared her stories with dozens of first responders and their families on Saturday as part of the First Responders Family Recognition, an event held at Legacy Woodburn Health Center meant to honor and recognize the sacrifices and hardships that families of first responders must live with on a day-to-day basis.
The longest-tenured volunteer with Woodburn Fire, Warde Hershberger's family grew up knowing that at any time, their father may be forced to respond to emergencies around the city, no matter how inopportune they came.
"Nothing stopped their dad from going out the door as soon as the 'beep-beep-beep' starts," Hershberger said. "It's the sound that we have lived with all of these years."
Warde became a volunteer fire fighter in 1962, before he and Patricia began raising their three children in Woodburn. Their kids grew up as part of the fire department family and Warde's frequent trips to the fire station was simply a way of life.
"Our children know nothing differently," Hershberger said. "Thanksgiving dinner could be on the table and off he'd go to whatever the emergency happened to be. Or Sunday dinner or mowing the lawn —whatever it was, the 'beep-beep-beep' takes you out, away."
It's the kind of unique family life that few people outside of the first responder community can relate to. It's the kind of life that Woodburn resident Ewart Brown was wholly unaware of when he attended a Woodburn City Council meeting in February that saw 11 officers promoted or hired.
After the ceremony, Brown struck up a conversation with one officers' spouses who told him that, "every morning when my husband leaves for work, it is as if I take a deep breath, and I hold it all day until he comes home."
"My heart just died," Brown said. "For the very first time I had a glimpse of what law enforcement could be all about. I have never thought before that kids go through this…that wives go through this…that husbands go through this…that parents go through this."
That moment planted a seed in Brown's head — as much as first responders are celebrated in the community for their bravery and sacrifice, rarely if ever do folks recognize the anxiety that family members must go through when their loved ones race out the door or go to work each day.
Woodburn police officer Nate Smith was one of five new officers who was sworn in that day, and his wife Kristina spoke to the crowd on Saturday of her experience as the spouse of a first responder.
"One of the things you talk about is that fear that he might not come back," Smith said of her husband. "…you roll over in bed and you see your spouse there and you wonder 'Is he going to go to work and is he not come back?'
"It can make you feel guilty," she continued "You're getting up, running errands, creating your own memories and you're wondering if you just wasted that last day that you had with your spouse."
Woodburn Mayor Kathy Figley knows firsthand the risks that first responders go through, serving as mayor during the bombing of West Coast Bank in 2008 that claimed the lives of Oregon State Police Trooper William Hakim and Woodburn Police Captain Tom Tennant, and injured then-Woodburn Police Chief Scott Russell.
"I think we all recognize that responding — whether as an EMT, firefighter or a police officer — is not something that is risk free," Figley said. "You've given us an enormous gift. Sharing your husband, wife, son or daughter with us. It's a wonderful gift and we appreciate that. Our community remembers both our first responders and their families in our prayers."
The event is one that Brown would like to see continue on an annual basis, reaching out to families of EMTs, police and fire personnel, as well as dispatchers to let them know that the gift of their families is both acknowledged an appreciated.
Toward the end of the event, Maps Credit Union branch manager Christa Brustad helped make that a reality by presenting a $500 gift to the First Responders Family Recognition to keep the event going in 2018.
"We are so thankful for you to share your loved ones with us," Brustad said. "Thank you for all that you do, and to all the first responders — we do not say it enough and you are not told enough — thank you for all that you do."