Fire Fighters Association of Missouri

Five Family Members Work Together in Mid-MO FD

Gary Berendzen surrounded by his children, from left, Adam, Jennifer, Eric and Jesse. The family currently serve on the Cole County Fire Protection District. Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/News Tribune.

The idea of becoming a firefighter when they grew up just seemed natural for the Berendzen children.

Their dad, Gary, was always going out on calls; and his children, if they could, always wanted to see their dad in action.

“I was right there looking out the windshield and looking at all the lights and saying, ‘this is awesome,” Gary’s son Eric said.

“We found out that the fire department isn’t just a department; it’s a family,” Gary’s daughter, Jennifer, said. “I’ve known the guys on the department all my life.”

It was the same for Gary’s other children, Jesse and Adam. All five family members serve with the Cole County Fire Protection District and are currently or have in the past served with the Jefferson City and Holts Summit fire departments.

“I can remember Dad’s pager going off and hoping I’d hear him say we needed to jump in the truck and head out to a call,” Jesse said. “I always wanted to be the person to push the button to turn the lights on Dad’s truck. When we’d get on the scene, he’d tell us to stay in the truck; but the truck had a back window that would slide, and we’d get out into the bed of the truck to get a better look at things.”

Adam added: “I knew I wanted to be a firefighter, but I knew at some point that I needed to start learning my way around stuff.”

“As they got older, they’d help us change out equipment, like air bottles and air packs,” Gary said. “They’d seen it done and knew how to do it.”

The Berendzen children said being full-fledged firefighters is everything they thought it would be when they watched their dad growing up.

“There’s some stuff that you do see that you wish you hadn’t,” Eric said. “There’s certain calls that you can’t forget. I know there’s been plenty of times where at the end of the call you are speechless. You think about, ‘What can I do to make sure this doesn’t happen to my family?””

“I know there’s plenty of times after I get off of a call and I’ll call my dad just because he’s been through a lot of these things,” Jesse said. “That helps quite a bit.”

“We run a lot of accidents and some medical calls, and you can’t turn them down,” Gary said. “You do what you need to do.”

There have been several occasions when the family has worked a fire call, doing so as members of different departments.

“We had a big fire in New Bloomfield while I was working with Holts Summit, and Cole County came up to help; so Dad was there, and we all worked together,” Adam said. “Even though we’re on different departments, it’s still a brotherhood.”

“For the most part, with most departments, when you’re on duty and working a call, it’s not about who’s better than the other — it’s about saving a life or savings someone’s property,” Eric said.

Gary was quick to point out other families have multiple members serving, including the Braun and Hammond families.

“A lot of your big cities have paid departments, but you see fathers, sons, daughters, uncles and grandfathers,” he said. “It’s a tradition.”

“Firefighting is a family career,” Eric added. “It’s family-driven, and that’s what I love about it so much. You meet all these great people, and they become your family as well.”

“I’ve got 72 people I work with, and I know I can call them and they’ll help me with whatever I need,” Jesse said. “It is a big brotherhood.”

With a number of grandchildren growing up around the fire service like their parents did, Gary and his children believe a third generation of Berendzens will want to answer the fire call.

“When I go off for training, my son says he hopes one day he can go with me, and he’s driven to go,” Adam said.