By Jordan Huether
Saturday, February 24 was looking to be a pretty regular day for Jerry Larson. A retired member of the Gordon Volunteer Rescue Squad and Volunteer Fire Department, Larson was asked to participate in a training exercise at the city auditorium as a patient. Upon arrival, Larson noticed something strange. Sitting on a table just inside the door was his high school graduation photo. “I said, ‘hey, I know that guy.’ Then I realized it was me, and got to looking further and here was all sorts of my stuff spread out,” Larson recalled.
Old patches and badges, helmets, certificates and other memorabilia covered tables in the basement room of City Hall. He even received a small tulip made by Payton, grand-daughter of asst. chief of the Rescue Squad, Jan Grover, as a retirement gift. He also visited with a young woman who told him he was the first firefighter who had ever talked to her, back when he was with the Hemingford Fire Marshal’s Office doing fire prevention at area rural schools. The Gordon Volunteer Rescue Squad arranged the Lifetime Appreciation Luncheon to honor Jerry for 50 years of service to communities. “Jerry is a man that gave freely of his years of knowledge as a mentor and instructor to anyone that was willing to listen and learn,” the Gordon Volunteer Rescue Squad said in a statement. “He has a sense of community that is above and beyond. We can’t thank him enough for all the years he was an EMT, fireman, fire marshal, instructor and law enforcement officer.”
“I nearly lost it, because I’ve never been honored like that before. Boy did it mean a lot,” Larson said. “Seeing that American Flag they made, hand made by the members, I couldn’t believe they’d gone to that much effort.”
Larson first got involved with emergency services during his time with the United States Air Force, where he was the only volunteer firefighter where he was stationed. Larson got to know about five of the paid firefighters well, and they put him in touch with the chief of the department there, who was a civilian. The chief thought it was great that there were people interested in fighting fires who weren’t paid, so a volunteer group was formed, which solely consisted of Larson for the first three years.
Following his service in the Air Force, Larson returned to his hometown of Omaha. His father, who worked for the city, told him about an upcoming test for firefighters. Larson took the test, passed it, and became a paid firefighter. During this time, Larson and his wife, Ronda, took an EMT course with about 300 fire fighters. His department became the first paramedic service in the state and Larson became a paramedic, working there for 17 years.
Larson also ran the rescue truck, which carried all sorts of special equipment, and served on the scuba diving team and the hazmat response team. He also served as a volunteer firefighter on the LaVista department for about 7 years during his time there.
When their daughter was born with bad asthma, the Larsons were told to move west for cleaner and drier air. The move took them to Hemingford, where Larson would serve as Deputy Fire Marshal. He felt it natural to continue with his duties in the fire service and quickly joined the Hemingford Volunteer Fire Department. During his time there, he became an EMT Basic, allowing his Paramedic Certification to expire. He eventually became an EMT instructor and helped form the state EMT association.
The State Fire Marshal put him through law enforcement training and he became an arson investigator. The job came with a partner, a black lab named Jake, trained to sniff out hydrocarbons. Larson credits his partner with 48 confirmed convictions for arson. “He earned his keep,” Larson laughed.
In one case, there was a woman who worked ranches up and down Highway 20, training and shoeing horses. Larson eventually tied her to nine fires between Chadron and Valentine. He worked with the Wyoming Fire Marshal and was able to tie a few more fires to her there. It was one of the longest investigations he ever had. He was also called to investigate a sugar factory explosion in Scottsbluff that leveled five full-size storage elevators, the main processing facility, and supervisory offices. He was called out around 10:30 at night and didn’t return home for 23 days, living out of a motel.
When a new Fire Marshal came along and told Larson to move to Scottsbluff and leave volunteering behind, he decided it was time to retire and follow his family to Gordon, where Ronda had just received a job offer at Gordon Memorial Hospital.
Right away, Jerry joined the volunteer fire department, who was also running the ambulance at the time. While in Gordon, Larson regained an ALS Provider Certification and was certified as an EMT Intermediate in 1999. He went on to serve as chief of the Gordon Volunteer Rescue Squad for many years, until he stepped down in 2012. He decided to retire in 2015 due to health reasons. “Couldn’t keep up with the young pups,” he said.
One memory that stands out to him is when he was dispatched west of LaVista for an Amtrak derailment. Jerry drove a fire truck and was in charge of incident staging – directing resources in the incident. The call came in as 30-50 people injured. There were actually 3-5.
Another highlight was when he responded to a car vs. grain truck south of town. “When the driver was removed from the vehicle, she was showing no signs of life, and we were able to save her,” Larson recalled. She came to his event Saturday. Moments like those make it all worth it for him.
His least favorite part of the job was the continuing education. He felt the many hours in the classroom were taking away from what he really wanted to do, which was take care of people. “That’s something, when I was teaching EMT courses, that I always tried to stress, that your primary interest should be in taking care of people. That’s something that I really miss, the people.”
Larson takes great pride in his community and the volunteer squads charged with keeping its people safe. “Whenever I would talk to groups, I would always tell them, they can really be thankful for what they have in this town, because I would place this rescue squad and this fire department above any of them that I’ve worked with. Gordon is very fortunate to have what they do – all the way from their first responder services, both fire and rescue, to the medical care provided at the hospital, to their ability to get people shipped out of here if they need additional care,” he said with pride. “I’ve been a lot of places, worked with a lot of ambulance services and all that, and they wish they had what we have.”