The Firefighters Association celebrated the 30th annual firefighter banquet on Saturday, Feb. 24. What originally started as a way to pay tribute to the significant others of firefighters in the ’80s, has since morphed into a night of honoring all of those who answer the fire call.

“It kind of evolved from a wife appreciation [event] to giving awards to different firefighters,” said Perry Volunteer Department, Chief Chris Hinds.

Falling close to Saint Valentine’s Day, the banquet started as a way to say thanks to the firefighter spouses who understand the importance of a call.

“When the pager sounds, these ‘volunteer’ firefighters will put aside their own personal life and many times leave their wife or girlfriend behind as they respond to a service call,” Hinds wrote in a press release.

The banquet has taken more of a light and casual tone as it’s grown over the years.

“We started thinking [that] every time we get new people we should recognize who stands out among the new people each year, who does the best, and we should recognize somebody for something great that they’ve done,” Hinds said.

All of the department looks forward to it, Hinds says.

“We started giving out Firefighter of the Year and then Rookie of the Year, and of course, we’ve got our fun little trophy with Driver of the Year for the guy who screws up the most,” Hinds laughed. “We recognize people for the number of years they’ve been on: 5, 10, 15, and 20.”

In order to ensure the community is still properly protected, a handful of volunteers are on call throughout the duration of the banquet.

“We have some people that are on call that are not actually participating,” Hinds said. “We’ve got two-thirds of the department here tonight, and we’ve got the other third that have stayed home and are available for call.”

“Plus we make sure that the surrounding communities know that this is our night and if we need them they’re going to be here.”

After enjoying a meal at the Elks Lodge, both Chief Hinds and 1st Assistant Chief, Brian Eiteman spoke before Perry Mayor, John Andorf addressed the crowd.

“If memory serves me correct, you guys started off in January with a temperature of about minus 20 degrees and a windchill of about minus forty fighting a house fire,” Mayor Andorf said. “It just goes to show what you guys have to go through.”

“I do want to give a sincere thanks on behalf of the elected officials and certainly myself for everything you do.”

Before firefighters were recognized during the awards portion of the evening, 1st Assistant Chief, Brian Eiteman introduced a special guest who was saved by the fire department this past year.

“We don’t get a chance to talk to people that we have to go on the EMS calls very often,” Eiteman said. “Today we have Julie Kern with us, some of you guys that were out there on the sandbar with us probably recognize her a little bit - we saved her life out on the sandbar.”

Kern was joined by her granddaughter, as well as those involved in patient care, CPR, bagging, a police officer, those who assisted in the helicopter.

“The reason I wanted everybody to come up here is to show everybody it takes more than one person to save a life,” Eiteman said.

Following the recognition, awards were given to members of the fire department.

5 years of service: Doug Harlan, Doug Bonjour;

25 years of service: Joel Eiteman, Kevin McLaughlin

35 years of service: Frank Eiteman

50 years of service: Bill Kempf

Driver of the Year: Rodney Cromwell

Rookie of the Year: Deanna Eiteman

Best Fundraiser Award for 2016-2017: Andy Modlin, Matt Hix

Firefighter of the Year: Joel Eiteman

Bill Kempf, volunteer for 50 years, received a standing ovation for his dedication to the fire department.

“If I know one thing, you can’t get that far without support from your family,” Kempf told the crowd.

The department looks forward to the banquet each year, Hinds says.

“Our banquet is no longer the formal event it started out to be, but more of a casual affair now where we can reflect on the past year and recognize the fire fighters for their accomplishments and still be able to thank our wives and girlfriends by giving them a night out for the supper and patience they show us each and every day throughout the year,” Hinds wrote.

According to information from the event, First Responders responded to 507 calls in 2017.