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Midway Fire and Rescue: Out of the pulpit and into the fire

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Father Wil Keith grew up admiring the fact that his childhood priest was chaplain for the Asheville, N.C., Police Department.

“That was very defining in his career,” said Keith, rector at Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Episcopal Church in Pawleys Island. “When we had blessing of the animals the police would bring their horses and K9 units. It was a big deal for our little church.”

When Keith was invited to become the new chaplain for Midway Fire and Rescue, he remembered his childhood priest’s experiences and said yes. “I had no idea what would be expected of me,” Keith said, “or even if I was qualified, but my mind went back to my priest.”

Keith has been hanging around the main firehouse off Willbrook Boulevard, getting to know the firefighters and chiefs. He went on his first emergency call, a fender-bender on Highway 17, last week. “They told me to jump in the engine,” Keith said, “and I told them I really respect what you do and take your responsibility seriously but I was grinning like a little kid.”

Midway Chief Doug Eggiman said Keith’s enthusiasm is winning over the firefighters and emergency personnel at the stations. “Wil is young, very close to the age of most firefighters,” Eggiman said. “He’s passionate and has the training and education to go with it.”

Eggiman said studies have shown that firefighters suffer more Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms but seldom seek help.

“The job can be very taxing and trying on the emotions of the responders,” he said. “They see and experience a lot of things people don’t see, and in a lot of occasions don’t want to see. Historically, firefighters have had a macho, keep-it-to-yourself attitude that’s led to a lot of nationwide problems over the years between suicides and divorces. Wil’s role will be to visit the stations. Firefighters won’t always seek out help, but when they have somebody visiting and they establish a comfort level they can open up.”

Keith said he finds a family spirit in the fire department’s camaraderie. “I grew up with a sister, and this is a brotherhood even though there are female firefighters,” he said. “They love what they do, and it’s a lot of fun to be with them. I’m amazed at how welcome I’ve been made to feel and how quickly they want to incorporate me. I haven’t had one person pass me without either shaking my hand or introducing themselves or slapping me on the back and saying how glad they are that I’m here. I feel needed.”

Keith replaces the Rev. Nels Ledwell, who retired from St. Paul’s Waccamaw United Methodist Church. He’s getting a chaplain’s fire helmet and other protective gear that he will keep in his vintage Chevy El Camino.

“It’s important to be there if a family loses their home or any time a child is hurt,” he said, “That’s tough on a family and the firefighters.”

In fact, Keith sees his primary role as a confidant to the firefighters. “It’s clear that I’m outside the hierarchy,” he said. “Anybody and every body can approach me, and things they tell me are confidential. I’m not reporting to senior officers. I don’t overestimate what I can do. If they are dealing with something where they need to see a licensed therapist, a recommendation from me might carry more weight for them to get help. My primary role is to the firefighters. I’m a minister to the community, but I’m their chaplain.”

Keith hopes to restart a Fellowship of Christian Firefighters and find ways he can be of the most help, perhaps starting work shifts with a prayer. “I want to get something out of it beyond riding on a fire truck,” he said. “These guys are doing something above and beyond for their community. It’s their job to patch wounds and put out fires. I hope I can be with them for spiritual stuff and take care of them as best I can.”

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