COLUMBIA — There was no emergency, but Jeffrey Heidenreich didn't know it yet.
On a recent afternoon, the Columbia Fire Department went on a call to a residence on Red Bay Creek Road.
Dressed in his bunker gear, Heidenreich, 28, searched the house for the cause of a burning odor and scanned the rooms with a thermal imaging camera along with Lt. Rich Martin and firefighter Jared Hatfield.
It was a “harmless deal” for the trio assigned from Columbia Fire Station No. 7 — they found nothing but a burnt popcorn smell coming from a microwave.
But Heidenreich wouldn't approach the situation any other way.
“We’d rather come to something like this where there is no emergency versus actually happening to be an emergency,” Heidenreich said. “If someone is having a real emergency, it means that someone is having a really bad day.”
Heidenreich is a firefighter for the Columbia Fire Department, a volunteer for the Boone County Fire Protection District, a rescue specialist for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a salesman for a real estate agency, a part-time job he started in June.
Inspiration for career
During the summer 0f 2001, after Heidenreich had graduated from high school, members of Station No. 7 responded to a 911 call he made after a car he was riding in drove into a ditch, flipped over and rolled upside down on Nifong Boulevard.
His back was slightly injured; however, the driver's forehead was cut by the roof, and the other two passengers were sent to the hospital with backboards and cervical collars in an ambulance.
He said the image of the firefighters helping him and his friends that night was something that stuck with him for a long time. The incident solidified his passion to become a firefighter.
“I thought about being a pilot and doing a million other careers,” Heidenreich said.
His path to his career began in 2001 as a volunteer for the Boone County Fire Protection District.
But, first, about two weeks after the accident, he joined the Columbia Fire Department's Explorer Post. It helped him understand the department and learn about the career he wanted to pursue.
When he was an MU freshman majoring in business management, Heidenreich moved into the residency program at Fire Station No. 8 of the fire district until the summer of 2005. He was promoted to lieutenant before he graduated.
Heidenreich joined the Columbia firefighters in 2008. He said he felt fortunate to be picked for the Columbia Fire Department recruit class seven months after submitting his application.
Heidenreich is currently a "floater" for shift 1; he fills in for other firefighters when they are sick or on vacation.
Martin said Heidenreich is one of his favorite firefighters because he is experienced and knowledgeable.
"When you go on call, you know you can trust the people you've got with you," Martin said. "You come back to the station, pick on each other. It is almost like having my kids here."
Hatfield has known Heidenreich for five years.
“Jeff is fun to get along with,” Hatfield said. “We have our own sense of humor. ... I would never tell him that he’s good. But he knows it.”
Martin said when you spend 24 hours a day with the same people, you learn to get along.
Because he spends a third of his time at the fire station, Heidenreich said he's grateful for the great facilities and the home-like feel.
“But it is tough sometimes to be away from friends and family for a third of the time," he said. “We certainly learned to enjoy it, deal with it and make the best of it."
Bob Heidenreich understands that is the way his son’s job is.
“For him to have a career he really likes is something very valuable,” Bob Heidenreich said. He said his son is smart, and he thinks the training keeps him well.
Amy Heidenreich, Jeffrey Heidenreich's younger sister, said she admires him for choosing a career that gives back to the community so much that it's inspired her to do the same.
“He is not only a great brother but a great mentor,” she said. “He is always available to meet with me if I ever need to talk about an issue.”
Running calls in Columbia is a personal experience for Heidenreich. Because he grew up here, he often helps his co-workers, their families, friends and neighbors.
“You see the impact that has on the local community," he said. "You see how it affects people you know.”
Heidenreich said he also values being part of a system that exists to help people.
He's trying to do his part.
Ten years after the accident that sparked his career, he still helps with the new members of the Explorer Post as one of the advisers and as the training coordinator.
"It is nice to be able to share the knowledge and experiences I gained over the last 10 years with the youth involved in the program," he said.
He also has worked as a rescue specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency since 2005. He went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina with Missouri Task Force 1 for more than two weeks, searching for and rescuing survivors as well as locating the deceased.
Heidenreich said both the loss of life and saving lives affect him: “There have been a lot of incidents or assignments over the years that will probably stick with me for my lifetime."
And, he's inspired others to follow his path.
Kevin Wine, a longtime friend of Heidenreich's, credits Heidenreich for encouraging him to become a volunteer at the fire district.
Heidenreich helped Wine through the fire district's recruit class. Wine admires his leadership: “He loves to teach other people.”
As a volunteer, Heidenreich sometimes has to respond to emergencies alone. When it comes to a serious call, Heidenreich said it is nerve-racking to be the only one talking on the radio while driving the truck and taking care of the patient at the same time.
“It is scary to know that you might get there first and be the only one there to start dealing with the problem. But in the back of your mind you always know that there was more help on the way.”
He said most of the time trucks from other stations or volunteers assist.
But he knows that any call can be an emergency.
He recalls a major fire in 2010. The roof of the burning building collapsed while he and Lt. Delwyn Duncan searched for people who were possibly trapped. The men escaped from the front of the house when they found no one in the home.
Heidenreich said he felt grateful for his training and the good crew, and has learned what to do to keep the crew and himself safe.
Because he works for multiple fire departments, Heidenreich said he doesn't want to “get burned out” in emergency services. Heidenreich's part-time real-estate career acts as a change of pace to keep him fresh.
But it won't prevent him from offering help to those who need it.
“You are never a firefighter one day and not one the next day,” Heidenreich said. “If you see someone in a car accident or you see a problem, I think most firefighters are going to stop and help, whether they are on or off duty.”