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Volunteer turned tragedy into decades-long firefighting effort

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry Kirk Foust has been a member of the Starbrick Volunteer Fire Department for 35 years — 20 of those as chief.

Kirk Foust had a very personal and powerful reason for joining his local volunteer fire department.

Foust has been a volunteer firefighter for 35 years, the last 20 of those as chief. He first joined Starbrick Volunteer Fire Department as a junior firefighter in 1988. “At that age, I had watched my mom pass away in front of me,” Foust said. “I had no idea how to do CPR.”

“That was the straw,” he said. “I said, ‘I’d better learn how to do that so it doesn’t happen to someone else in my family or someone else’s family.”

His brother had been a member at Starbrick.

“For the next four years, I just hung out at the station,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed to do much. My job was to help clean.”

“We had a mini-pumper, the newest diesel in the county,” he said. “We had an emergency van.”

He enjoyed the times waiting for the crews to return from calls.

“It’s a big family — a brotherhood,” Foust said. “I had my look-up guys — the guys that knew what they were doing.”

He mentioned Tim Wiltsie, Larry Stoddard, and Pat Ditonto as examples.

“There were more men here than there was turnout gear,” Foust said.

He remembers those brave firefighters heading out to and returning from calls riding in a place of honor.

“They were still riding on the back of the truck — the tailboard,” he said. “Growing up, I said, ‘I want to ride on that.'”

When Foust turned 18, he took Basics — Essentials of Firefighting — and was ready to be an interior firefighter.

“My first fire, I went in with Pat,” Foust said. “Clarendon Producing. It was scary.”

“We went in – nothing but black,” he said.

The fire at the Wagon Wheel was another memorable one, in a different way.

“There was more intense heat and I could see a little better,” he said. “There was more searching involved because it was a bigger place.”

“That’s where I got some good fire,” he said.

Sometimes, the fires were easier.

“When I used to live on Yankee Bush, we were tapped for a structure fire,” Foust said. “It was next door.”

Instead of heading to the station, he grabbed a fire extinguisher and went right to the fire.

“I went inside, ripped some sheetrock off and put the fire out before anyone got there,” he said.

He was a full member of the department for 10 years before he was promoted to lieutenant. Two year later he was captain. Two years after that, chief. He has held that position ever since. “I never imagined it would be this long,” Foust said.

In hindsight, he believes he became chief too early. He was an experienced firefighter, but there were things he had left to learn about leading the department. And there were others who could have taken the post.

“I would have liked to have been a deputy or assistant chief,” Foust said. “I still make mistakes.”

Over time, there were fewer members in the department. At first, the members and the turnout gear evened out. Now, there is plenty of gear for the few firefighters who are left.

Foust spends much of his time working in some capacity related to Starbrick Volunteer Fire Department. “This is all I do,” he said. “Over the last five or six years, my vacation – I take a week off and spend it here.”

Starting in 2019, the department got into the ambulance service business.

There are hundreds of fire and EMS calls in a year. There are drills every Tuesday, Bingo, dinners, parades.

While there are fewer members now than in years past, they still have the shared experiences that build relationships.

“After a call, the guys all sit around and talk,” he said. “You’re all trained the same.”

“You sit and talk about the fire,” he said. “It was good, so you come back and do it again.”

If anything went wrong, the firefighters would do their best to not make the same mistake.

“You want to learn from it and get better,” he said.

That applies to his positions as chief and president — a post he took on this year — “I’m hoping I can leave this place better than it was when I started.”

The fire hall isn’t just a place for camaraderie, for Foust, as for many volunteers, it’s family time. His wife is part of the department. His step-son is a junior firefighter. “My youngest son is 7,” Foust said. “He probably knows more about this equipment than I do.”

Keeping the department family-friendly is important to Foust. “If a guy is going to come in and he has a family, the place needs to be family oriented,” he said.

There is that intrinsic reward for doing a dangerous and difficult job and doing it well.

But, there is also some outside reward for both the emergency services side and the fire side of his volunteerism.

As he vowed after his mother died, he learned CPR. As an EMR, he has had occasion to use that skill to revive people who were unresponsive.

“When the homeowner comes up to you and says, ‘Thank you, you did a great job,’ that goes a long way,” Foust said. “I’m helping people. I’m trying to make a difference. That’s why I do it.”

He may not get to ride on the tailboard, but he’s helping people. “We’re living the dream.”

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