HELENA — It’s an end of an era for West Valley Fire Rescue. After 32 years of service, Chief Jerry Shepherd is officially retiring this week.
Shepherd first joined as a volunteer firefighter in 1989.
“I’ve wanted to be a fireman forever. I would have joined earlier but the wife didn’t want me to,” said Shepherd. “Having something that you get to help people, it’s an amazing feeling, it really is.”
The retiring chief still recalls his first major fire call, a fire at the now Montana Law Enforcement Academy in the Helena Valley which at the time was the Montana Vocational School for Girls.
“They had started a day room on fire,” he recalled.
Shepherd said he was hooked after that and was lucky enough to be hired full-time as the department’s chief in 2000. During his tenure, he’s responded to countless emergencies and calls for service. He was often one of the first people in his department to pick up the radio after a call came in to say he was on his way to help
“Probably the most dedicated and loyal person to this community could have,” said West Valley Trustee Jim Dusenberry. “We knock heads once in a while but we always come out with a solution and walk off as friends and he’s very determined to make sure this Fire department is first and foremost in everyone’s minds as far as firefighters go and all decisions are made for the betterment of this community.”
Dusenberry said Shepherd was forward locking as chief and wanted to make sure the department and firefighters were prepared. He’s overseen the addition of numerous vehicles to their fleet, the expansion of fire stations and the merging of West Valley and Lewis and Clark Fire.
“We owe a lot to that man and what he’s done for our community and for our fire department,” said West Valley Interim Chief David Hamilton. “He’s a great teacher who’s always been around and helped the firefighters when they needed help.”
The needs of the Helena valley have greatly changed over the years. In 1989 the department responded to 89 calls according to Shepherd, mainly fire as they didn’t have medical at the time. Following the growth in the Valley, the department added additional stations and equipment. They now respond to over 800 calls a year, mainly medical.
Shepherd says there’s no way around it, given the growth in the area and call volume more full-time personnel will be needed in the coming years.
“What’s going to have to happen is they’re going to have some paid staff,” he explained. “They just have to, it’s too tough to run that many calls on volunteers. I mean the volunteers here, they’re great men and women, don’t get me wrong, they give their heart to this place, but when you’re working a full-time job and have a family you only have so much time. They give a lot more than they should and they do.”
Shepherd says throughout the years, the best part of the job has always been the people.
“I just want to thank the community for their support for West Valley. They need it and that’s what they’re doing it for, they’re volunteering their time. It’s their appreciation of what these men and women are doing is what keeps them going. So I just want to thank the community for the support of the fire department.”
The Board of Trustees will now look for the next fire chief. Dusenberry says the new chief will have big shoes to fill, and the board will be looking for someone who recognizes the challenges a volunteer department faces and the sacrifices made by the volunteers.
And anyone interested in being a firefighter is always welcome to come and pick up an application. After all, the volunteer department only works because there are people willing to make that sacrifice for their community.