The call can come at any hour of any day, whether sleeping or awake. Fire doesn't tend to wait until it's convenient.

"I've missed weddings, birthdays, funerals," recalled Jeff Hemphill, six-year reserve firefighter for the Pendleton department and 12-year volunteer at Pilot Rock.

It's not uncommon, he said, to be almost out the door somewhere when his pager goes off. "And I have to pack two of them," he said. "It looks like my belt's full of bombs or something."

Hemphill is one of several men and women in Eastern Oregon who play an integral part in the health and safety of the region, filling in the fire-protection workforce gaps that are the result of limited or nonexistent municipal budgets.

A full-time farmer, Hemphill devotes much of his "down time" to firefighting. Just as a Pendleton reserve, Hemphill undergoes three nights of training a month, on top of whatever calls he is sent out for.

"You gotta be pretty dedicated to get it all done," said Hemphill. "It's about like working two full-time jobs."

Corrections officer Greg Dennis is another reserve firefighter out of Pendleton. He had been working at the prison for three years when he responded to an advertisement looking for additional fire help.

"I used to drill water wells for a living. And so I'm used to being more physical," said Dennis. "I thought, 'Well, hey, I've got this off time. Here I am right now with nothing to do.' "

Initial testing consisted of multiple timed exercises, such as carrying a hose bundle up three flights of stairs and climbing up and down from a 100-foot ladder truck.

"And that was fun, I thought," said Dennis. "But that's just me."

Dennis now has been on call for five years.

There also are the occasional career types like Cody Marcum of Stanfield, a recent high school graduate, who began as a junior firefighter at age 16.

"My friends thought it was pretty cool," he said, "because I'd be in school or something and I was allowed to leave."

Marcum recently began a volunteer residency program with the Hermiston department. As a "sleeper," he resides at the station for three 24-hour shifts, with 24 hours off between each. After the third block he has four days free before starting the cycle again.

He will begin college in the fall to become a full-time firefighter and paramedic, with the Hermiston program paying for $1,000 of tuition each term.

"It'll help pay for school and I get all the experience of just being a regular firefighter," Marcum said.

For individuals like Marcum and Hemphill, firefighting runs in the blood.

Marcum's uncle began volunteering at Stanfield more than 30 years ago, with his father not that far behind.

"From the time I was about 10 years old or on I'd go with my dad to fire meetings and stuff, so I was kind of used to it," said Marcum. "There's always been at least one Marcum on the Stanfield fire department since we were around."

Hemphill listed his father, brother and stepson who each serve as firefighters in one capacity or another.

"I've been around it all my life and it was just something that I liked," he said. "I've kind of got a passion for it."

But for all of the individuals who try it and love it, there are plenty who don't last quite as long, for various reasons.

"I've seen a ton of turnaround," said Hemphill, adding that the number of active Pendleton reserves dropped from 18 to six during his tenure.

"You can tell within the first couple weeks which guys are gonna last," he said. "When you get your nose right down in it, that's when it starts weeding a lot of people out."

In one recent weekend, Hemphill helped battle two different wildfires, working a total of 10 hours at the bombing range fire and 19 hours in Gilliam County.

"I think we got an hour and a half sleep between the two fires, considering the time we got home and got to shut down," said Dennis, who worked the same fires.

"They call us adrenaline junkies. Because that's what it is," said Dennis. "You go hard. You go fast for however long you need to. And then, hopefully, there's enough firemen there to break you out so you can get a breather.

"I mean, wearing those turnouts or being in a brush fire, it's hot. And your adrenaline's going. Perspiration's going. You're running out of liquid. You're running out of energy. You're running out of everything."

Just about any firefighter will attest to the adrenaline rush of getting the call, or of arriving at a scene that is a bigger deal than anticipated. But, in reality, there are not always a lot of big fires, which may contribute to the fact that the need for volunteers goes unnoticed.

"People don't see the need until their house or their neighbor's house is burning down," said Jim Whelan, Stanfield fire chief. "That's the bottom line."

He also attributes the decrease of volunteer firefighters to a growing demand for people's time.

"When my kids were going to school, the boys had Little League, but not a lot of organized sports until they entered high school," Whelan said.

Today, he said, some of the volunteers spend an enormous amount of free time balancing their children's different athletic activities, from peewee football to gymnastics, not to mention other activities.

The amount of training, Whelan said, requires incredible family support.

"The adrenaline rush is there, but that's not what keeps firefighters," Whelan said. "It takes a deep feeling for the community."

Dennis looks at it from his own point of view.

"Correctional officers aren't always considered the good guys," he said. "The way I see it, firemen are kind of looked at as heroes. Instead of being the bad guys, they're the good guys. And it's kind of fun being a good guy."

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