Brad Wheeler is 21st Imperial firefighter
to be recognized
By Jan Schultz
The Imperial Republican
When Brad Wheeler was chosen by his fellow Imperial volunteer firefighters last month as their choice a second time for Fireman of the Year, he likely thought the awards couldn’t get much better.
That changed, however, last Friday when the volunteer firefighter from Imperial received the Award of Merit presented by the Nebraska State Volunteer Firefighters Association.
Wheeler’s selection makes the 21st time an Imperial firefighter has received the prestigious Award of Merit.
The presentation came at Friday morning’s opening ceremonies at the Nebraska State Fire School in Grand Island.
Only 10 firefighters from across the state earn the award each year after nominations from their department.
Wheeler said this week he was totally surprised when his name was the 10th one announced, and even moreso when several members of his family appeared to join in the applause.
His wife, Heidi, children Katelyn, a seventh grader, and Scott, in fifth grade, were there along with twin brother, Bruce, a former Imperial volunteer firefighter. Also attending were his parents, Lovell and Phyllis Wheeler of Rapid City, So. Dak.
“It was a nice honor,” he said.
In addition to the recipient’s firefighting involvement, the Award of Merit also recognizes the firefighter for community service.
A firefighter 25 years
Wheeler marked a quarter century on the Imperial Volunteer Fire Department (IVFD) last December, and has held several offices since joining in 1986.
He’s been first asst. chief, second asst. chief (the office he holds now), lieutenant and has been a crew chief.
He is currently captain of the department’s jaws team, and has been on that team since its inception at least 20 years ago. He has served on the department’s rope rescue team and serves as on-shore support for the IVFD dive rescue team.
Wheeler is a certified Firefighter I member of the IVFD and, several years ago, earned Red Card certified firefighter status, which allows him to be called in to fight forest fires.
He’s also a committee member for the IVFD’s annual Family Fun Day on July 4.
Employed by Imperial Super Foods as a manager and meat cutter, Wheeler is also active in Crossroads Wesleyan Church and has been a little league baseball coach. He’s played several years of co-ed softball.
Other IVFD members who attended Fire School last weekend included Nick Schultz, Doug Mitchell, Aaron Greene, Earl Loop, Sergio Almanza, Jody Bopp and Todd Burpo. Rob Browning and Brad Dillan were present Friday for the awards ceremony.
Bopp was there as Fire School instructor, and Burpo also had duties as the volunteer firefighters association’s chaplain.
Wheeler took the “Put Fire on the Ground” class, which taught how to back-burn a major fire to stop its progression.
After serving for 25 years, the experiences and memories are many, Wheeler said.
When asked to recall specific fires, it was difficult for him, but one that sticks in his mind occurred several hours from here.
That was about six years ago, when he was one of a half dozen IVFD members who assisted in the Pine Ridge fire in northwest Nebraska that eventually burned some 60,000 acres.
Firefighters were called in from departments all over western Nebraska which eventually drew about 600 firefighters to battle the fires that were started by lightning strikes in early August that year.
The IVFD was called in by the Harrison Volunteer Fire Dept., Wheeler recalled, and they spent two days on the scene.
Unfortunately, some of the IVFD’s other calls have been tragedies of a different nature.
“When you join a fire department, you think you are just going to fight fires,” he said. However, the IVFD is called to accidents and drownings, too, which often do not have good outcomes.
Wheeler agreed that he’s seen too many of those.
So, what led Wheeler to join the fire department?
He said his brother, Bruce, joined IVFD about six months before he did, but it took some urging and “deals” to get Brad to finally do it.
J.R. Reeder approached him about joining, noting it would be great to have twin brothers on the IVFD together to replace other twin brothers, Bob and Dick Bartels, who had just retired.
Wheeler said he had some hesitation, but Reeder responded that there are some things people do that they don’t necessarily want to do.
“I asked him what those were,” Wheeler smiled. “And, he said, ‘bowling.’”
Wheeler said he told him if Reeder signed up to bowl, he’d join the fire department. Reeder did, and so did Wheeler.
However, Wheeler added, his counterpart only bowled about a year.
Appropriately, Reeder was the one who presented the Award of Merit to Wheeler last week in Grand Island.
What’s kept him on for 25 years?
“The excitement of it” and the camaraderie with the other guys, he said.
He expressed thanks to his fellow firefighters in Imperial for nominating him.
Respect from peers
The Award of Merit application asks for letters of support from the community.
Fire Chief Schultz wrote, “He has been a very knowledgeable sounding board, battle-tested resource and invaluable company asset to me and the department as a whole.”
He added, “Brad’s professionalism, work ethic, integrity and attention to detail are unsurpassed. I have always had the utmost confidence in his decisions and ability to do what is needed and right.”
Other letters commented:
“I know Brad is exactly the type of fireman that your committee seeks to honor. Even with the best and newest equipment, it takes men like Brad Wheeler to get our job done right.”
“He is not a member to sit in the background, but rather exemplifies leadership and service to others.”
State Award of Merit recipients from IVFD
1962 Art Stevens
1963 John Splitt
1974 Jerry Willhoft
1975 Jack Browning
1976 Robert Allen
1976 Ralph Browning
1977 Ron Meininger
1979 Marc Shay
1980 Dick Hansen
1981 Byron Hust
1982 Gene Haarberg
1983 Ansel Hill
1984 Richard Meyer
1987 J.D. Reeder
1990 Tom Elder
1991 Alan Woofter
1993 Paul Kunnemann
2001 Jody Bopp
2008 Todd Burpo
2009 Nick Schultz
2012 Brad Wheeler