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Capt. Jamie Meyer retires

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As fire burned in the theater, Jamie Meyer stood ready with the hose while a fellow firefighter broke out a window in the door.

Air rushed in through that window and suddenly the building’s large plate-glass windows blew out.

A fireball rolled over the two firefighters’ heads.

“The fire got the oxygen it was starving for,” Meyer said.

Meyer and the other firefighter rushed in. The ceiling began dropping on them and wires started getting caught on Meyer’s coat.

It was the first interior fire Meyer ever fought.

That happened in Meyer’s hometown of Fairbury and before he began a more than 28-year career with the Fremont Fire Department.

This month, Meyer retired from the department, where he spent much of his time as a captain.

Meyer’s career included gut-wrenching times when lives couldn’t be saved, beautiful moments when a baby was born, and some unique rescues.

At 59, Meyer was the oldest firefighter in Fremont’s department when he retired. Younger firefighters teased him about graduating from high school in 1980 – before they were even born.

“(Firefighter) Zach Toole took a selfie with me in front of the squad and posted ‘It’s been fun working with someone who’s been doing the job longer than I’ve been alive.’”

Meyer’s experience began in Fairbury where he worked in his family’s business, Consolidated Sand and Gravel and Redi-Mix. He and his wife, Donna, married in 1984.

In March 1989, Meyer was asked to become a volunteer firefighter in Fairbury.

It sounded like fun, so he joined. He became a fulltime paid firefighter that August.

“I came to the realization I did enjoy firefighting, the excitement of doing it. I am an adrenalin junkie and I think, overall, it’s neat to have the ability to be able to help people,” he said.

Meyer’s first big fire was the downtown Fairbury theater blaze that occurred after a worker turned on a popcorn popper to warm the oil, then went down the street to the bank.

The popper’s thermostat failed and the unit caught on fire.

“I remember looking in the big, plate glass windows of the lobby and I could see the fire in the popcorn popper and smoke was down to about 3 foot from the floor,” Meyer said.

In less than two minutes, he couldn’t see anything through the window. The smoke was black. Meyer had grabbed a hose, but the water seemed to come slowly through the line.

The other firefighter broke the window just as Meyer started getting the much-needed water.

That’s when the large glass windows blew out.

After Meyer and another paid firefighter rushed inside, the ceiling and flexible ductwork began to fall and wires were getting caught on the D-rings on Meyer’s coat.

“We were kind of getting wrapped up in the wires,” Meyer said.

But the men made good progress in knocking down fire in the lobby area. Other crew members came in to help extinguish hot spots.

Meyer’s career continued when he was hired by the Fremont Fire Department in 1993.

He was excited about working for a bigger department and the opportunity to become a scuba diver.

During his tenure, Meyer also served the department as a paramedic for 26 years and trained to work with law enforcement on its Emergency Response Unit. He taught a myriad of firefighting classes at the state level.

In 1998, Meyer was promoted to lieutenant and to captain in 1999.

After Meyer became captain, he led B shift. The FFD has three shifts of paid firefighters, A, B and C. Firefighters work a 24-hour shift and then are off for 48 hours, unless they are called back in to help, which happens often.

Meyer saw heartbreaking situations.

One tragedy occurred in 2008 when Fremont firefighters got a 3:25 a.m. house fire call.

En route, a dispatcher radioed that three people were trapped inside.

“When we got on scene, fire was coming out the front door with heavy smoke conditions,” Meyer recalled.

A Fremont Tribune article told how firefighters couldn’t get very far into the two-story house, because it was burning so badly.

Heat and smoke kept them from finding the stairway.

As they felt their way through the unfamiliar setting, fire flared up behind them. They had to extinguish those flames to keep from being trapped inside the burning house.

In the meantime, their air packs, which were supposed to last 20 minutes, were already low after only 12 due to all the energy they’d expended.

A woman, who’d escaped from the house, told police a mother and two children were upstairs.

Meyer sent a firefighter up a ladder with a thermal imager, which pinpoints images of a person. Maybe firefighters could locate and pull people through the window.

But no one was there.

Without knowing their location, all Meyer’s years of training revealed a brutal truth: He couldn’t send a firefighter, loaded with 50 pounds of necessary gear, through that window.

The firefighter could fall through the floor in seconds or become disoriented in the smoke-filled area and die – never finding the victims.

Firefighters in the house radioed in. They were on their hands and knees trying to stay in the coolest part of the inferno. Heat from the fire had reached hundreds of degrees.

Reality hit hard.

With the dense smoke and firefighters in heavy gear struggling from such intense heat, Meyer knew the mother and two children hadn’t survived.

He believes they’d already died quickly of smoke inhalation.

Meyer had to make the call to pull the firefighters out of the house. Firefighters fought the blaze from three sides of the house’s exterior, extinguishing it. Meyer left the scene eight hours after the initial call.

It is tough for firefighters who spend their careers helping others — and who often have their own spouses and children — to not be able to save the victims.

“We did everything humanly possible to try and get to them,” Meyer said.

Other rough situations included fatal car accidents, suicides and kids’ deaths.

“It’s tragic when you’re doing CPR on an infant and not be able to save them,” he said.

Firefighters and paramedics see the sad side of life.

“People can’t imagine some of the things you see,” Meyer said. “You see the tragedies of life and I mean tragedies. After you see some of the things you see – the sights, the sounds, the smells – you can’t help but be affected by it.”

Yet there are rewards.

“I think one of the coolest things ever was the delivery of a baby,” Meyer said. “That made my career.”

Meyer recalled when the squad was called to an apartment and a young woman was starting to give birth.

“We helped deliver a healthy baby boy. It was incredible,” Meyer said.

Another time, the squad got a call about a woman, eight months pregnant, who wasn’t feeling well.

The squad reached the house just as her heart stopped beating while she was in the bathroom.

“We got her out of the bathroom, started doing CPR and medications,” Meyer said. “We got her heart started again.”

The squad took her to Fremont’s hospital. From there, she was transferred to an Omaha hospital. She became one of very few women who surgically received a pacemaker while being eight months pregnant.

“And I believe she gave birth to a healthy baby,” Meyer said, adding, “A lot of times, we don’t see how people are doing after we help them.”

Paramedics still find it gratifying anytime they can help correct a medical condition.

“When you get out there and you can really make a difference, help somebody breathe again—whatever the medical emergency is—if you can help them that’s rewarding.”

So are rescues.

In 2018, Meyer’s crew made a high-angle rescue after getting a call about a Great Dane named, Thea. The dog had gone about halfway down a 200-foot bluff in the Riverview subdivision, south of Fremont.

A lawn service worker went down to help, but it began to get dark and neither were going to make it back up.

Although it was out of the local fire department’s jurisdiction, Meyer and his men went to help.

Firefighter Zach Klein went over the edge, at least 100 feet down, to reach the worker and dog. Firemen helped the dog and worker get down another 100 feet to the Platte River bank and a landing where they were picked up by airboat and taken to safety.

The firefighters made a high-angle entrapment rescue at Lincoln Premium Poultry in 2019.

It happened when the chicken processing plant was under construction. Two laborers had fallen about 40 feet from a basket in which they’d been working.

A 56-year-old man died in the fall, but firefighters rescued a 26-year-old man trapped in steel framing about 25 feet off the ground.

Looking back, Meyer believes the dog rescue provided a great run-through for when the critical, life-threatening situation occurred at Lincoln Premium Poultry.

Firefighters then had another high-angle mission, going down into a 130-foot grain bin to recover the body of an individual.

Non-life threatening situations occurred when an adult got a thumb stuck in a refrigerator ice maker and a kid’s arm got stuck in a pop machine.

Meyer said he’ll miss all the wonderful people he worked with in the fire and police departments, dispatchers, in the hospital setting and great people of Fremont that firefighters/paramedics were able to help.

He’ll drive a truck for Rawhide Chemoil, Inc., in Fremont. He looks forward to being home every night, being able to sleep all night and having weekends and holidays off.

Meyer also looks forward to more time with his wife, children and grandchildren: Blake and Angie and their twins, Adalene and Ainsley; Josh and Naomi; and Devin and his girlfriend Natalie.

He appreciates the firefighters with whom he served.

“They’re a great bunch of guys and they helped make my career the best it could be,” he said.

If he had to do it again, would he have become a firefighter?

Sounding like a paramedic, Meyer answers with three words:

“In a heartbeat.”

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News Editor

Tammy Real-McKeighan is news editor of the Fremont Tribune. She covers news, features, religion stories and writes the weekly faith-based, Spiritual Spinach column.

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