Department rookie quickly adjusting, increasing his goals

Aug. 17, 2013 @ 06:50 PM

Phayboun Keolavanh is the instant friend type, an outgoing and talkative man who goes by Paboo in order to make it easier for neighbors and co-workers to get to know him by name.

Keolavanh was 5 years old and one of five children with their parents who came from Laos through Vietnam to America, finally to the town of Oxford in 1978. Now Keolavanh works in Henderson as one of the department’s new firefighters.

“I’m an immigrant,” Keolavanh said. “All of us came straight to Oxford. We were sponsored by the United Methodist Church, and Oxford is where the church was. I was 5 when we got here. We were new from Laos. We had to learn the language and everything.”

Keolavanh said before becoming a firefighter, he worked a wide range of jobs, including a lumber yard and retail stores.

“I worked everything,” he said. “You name it, I probably did it.”

But in recent years, mentoring from a firefighter put him on a new career track, starting with the Oxford volunteer firefighters.

“I was there maybe a year before they put me through Durham Technical Fire Academy,” Keolavanh said.

Training included some heavy lifting. Learning is not just about “the ropes,” it’s more about learning the heavier hoses. It’s pulling and loading that takes some know how along with some good upper-body strength. In six months he earned Level I and Level II Firefighter certifications.

After that, he applied to work at the Henderson Fire Department.

“He came to apply, and he got it,” said Lt. Doug Owen. “He went through a week’s worth of shift training during the day.”

He’s been cycled him into the regular routine.

“He’s doing a heck of a job, and he fits right in with us,” Owen said. “He loves this work. He’s always happy, always glad to be here — you can tell he looks forward to coming to work.”

Battalion Chief Donald Moss pointed to the positive attitude as a real plus for hiring Keolavanh.

“He has a good attitude, you can tell he’s dedicated,” Moss said. “He has also done really well on his evaluations and job performance.”

Keolavanh said his first week had some intensity, with an actual house fire on Charles Street added to his day-time shift training.

“My first week here was pretty tough,” he said. “I had not gone to a real-life working fire. It was a rush, it was everything combined, a little fear and a little excitement.”

The strength challenge has not been a problem for Keolavanh. He’s a muscular man, and he has appreciated the work because it has gotten him even more in shape.

“I was always active, all through school,” Keolavanh said. “I did lose some weight in the academy, and most of what I’ve lost has been right here.”

The station house has a weight room and the firefighters have a calisthenics routine as part of a one-hour daily requirement for physical training.

Six months in, Keolavanh is taking part in training on top of training. He is taking EMT classes, a 188-hour course for EMT certification that the department wants for all firefighters.

Another aspect of the career path is setting new goals. One of them for Keolavanh is to move toward driving specialties.

“It’s part of the career development,” Keolavanh said. “When I started I just wanted to fight fires, but the interest in driving developed along the way.”

A department policy is that drivers must have two years of experience with the department before they start driving the big engines and tankers out to actual fire emergencies.

Fire Chief Danny Wilkerson said that Keolavanh’s success with the department is one of several good examples of how the fire academy in Durham is having a positive impact on firefighting.

“We like to hire people like that because they come in with training,” Wilkerson said. “Paboo has shown great dedication to the job, very dedicated and so willing to learn. We are very excited to have him.”

Wilkerson said that recent-year hires include six utilizing the Durham fire academy. One came on about a year ago, then Keolavanh and another joined about six months ago. Two more academy-trained firefighters have been hired since Keolavanh started, and the sixth firefighter is hired pending the academy training now under way.

“It’s really paid off, it is really a win-win,” Wilkerson said. “The new firefighters have the career opportunity, and for us it’s new hires being trained.”

Keolavanh said his family members still live close to Oxford, and they are all excited about seeing his firefighting career take off. It is also good to sense the camaraderie with fellow firefighters becoming more like family.

That camaraderie was evident in the good-humored interactions among fellow firefighters with Keolavanh at the station house.

“I was concerned about them accepting me,” Keolavanh said. “It is like a family here, with ups and downs like any family.”

Contact the writer at mfisher@hendersondispatch.com.