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Midway at 50: Chief grew up with the department

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Midway Fire and Rescue had Doug Eggiman at hello.

Eggiman, from Saint John, New Brunswick, came to the Waccamaw Neck in August 1985 to serve as night auditor/safety coordinator at Litchfield by the Sea. One of his favorite TV shows as a child had been “Emergency!”, and he wanted to become a volunteer firefighter, thinking that would be a good way to meet people in his new community.

Eve Casselman, a volunteer dispatcher at Midway, handed him an application and 23 years later pinned a chief’s pin on her husband’s uniform.

If anyone ever worked his way through the ranks, it was Doug Eggiman. He began as a volunteer and was hired as the department’s third paid firefighter. He learned on the job. John Stewart, a former assistant chief, remembers pulling Eggiman aside just before a blaze flashed at a big fire at Pawleys Island during his first year. The rookie soon learned to read the signs of smoke and fire. He took paramedic training and expanded his repertoire. He is constantly greeted by people in the community he once helped.

Shorter Rybolt, former fire marshal, says Eggiman is a good guy, and the department is better under his share-the-credit leadership. Rybolt gives praise to the fire department sparingly. He quit as fire marshal over what he calls political meddling.

Eggiman says it’s easy to provide good service to the public with quality people.

“This is not a profession where you are going to get rich,” he said. “You do it as a service to the community. When you approach it that way — and it’s inherent in the fire service — you do things for the right reason, not for extra money or a pat on the back. You do things because you are trying to help people.

“The guys and gals here take it very, very seriously. They are in a business where they know their lives depend on each other. It sounds clichéd to say, but that’s the reality.”

Eggiman is thankful that Midway has never lost a firefighter in the line of duty.

“We’ve had civilian fatalities over the years,” he said, “and that is always terrible. Accidents and drownings are equally terrible. But you do everything you can to minimize that. If you don’t train and take it seriously, bad stuff happens. But our employees and volunteers balance that with the reality that they’re public servants and have this unique opportunity to approach someone having the worst day of their life and change that. They may not be able to magically heal them, may not be able to back the fire up and make it not happen, but they can at least impact them in a positive manner to where the fire is not as damaging. One of the neat things about this profession is you have that ability.

“I see people who remember me from 15 years ago when I was in a truck or an ambulance and I took care of them. There are not a lot of professions where you get that kind of connection.”

Eggiman is equally proud of the fact that Midway has become an all-hazards department. ‘That’s one of the things that’s different now than when I joined,” he said. “Back then, you were a fire department. We went to accidents and fires. We really didn’t do medical calls, but it wasn’t too long after I joined that we started. Now we are a department that can handle hazardous materials, rope and water rescue, confined space, any medical emergency, even if people are lost in the woods.”

Water rescue has become a huge component of Midway’s training and service. Eggiman says the department goes on 25 to 30 legitimate water rescue calls a year, ranging from someone drowning or caught in a rip current to a boat flipped over. All three departments have watercraft, and there are boats at the Beaumont station and the Reserve’s marina.

“This has become a huge part of our summer activity,” Eggiman said. “It takes a tremendous amount of training. You are not going to give someone a five-hour course and say, ‘Here, take this Jet Ski and launch it in 8-foot waves and find a person.”

Eggiman calls the long hours of training essential to rescue work “sharpening the saw.”

He said there is nothing worse than going to a call and not having the training or the equipment to help.

The same is true with the firefighters themselves. The physical demands have become so great, few volunteers make the grade any more. They must pass physical tests annually and be willing to answer a 3 a.m. call on days when they have to get up at 6 a.m. and go to work. “It’s hard,” Eggiman said. “It’s become more and more difficult to get volunteers. Everybody is working these days. Our demographics are young professionals and a lot of retired people. Not a lot of them want to be in a ditch at 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Eggiman worries about his people, so he stresses training for every emergency: blood-borne pathogens, fire extinguisher malfunctions, hazardous materials, medical refreshers. “The demand is dramatic,” he said.

He remembers years ago when everybody thought it was a big deal to exceed 300 calls a year. “Last year,” he said, “we ran over 2,400 calls. Monday, we ran 12 or 13 calls. At that pace, it will be 4,000 a year. We’re not going to run 4,000 calls, but, no doubt, we will run 2,400. It increases every year.

“I can remember hopping on a truck going to an accident and the road would be empty, not a car in sight until I got to the wreck. It doesn’t matter if it’s 2 o’clock in the morning or 2 o’clock in the afternoon, you are not going to run a call without seeing traffic out there.

“It’s been amazing to watch the growth — and watch our people grow. Honestly, we are positioned well for the next 50 years. It’s hard for me to imagine what the next 50 years will be like. I hope I’ll be around.”

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