When the alarms sounded early that February morning, firefighter Chad Dunham responded as he always does to a call, ready to lead his team members to perform as they have trained to do.
He had no idea it would be the call during which he would save a woman’s life by singlehandedly removing her from a smoky apartment hallway. And if he had known, it would not have changed much for Dunham.
“Every firefighter out there, when he signs the papers to get this job, says, ‘When it comes down to it, am I gonna save her or save me? I am gonna save her every time,’” Dunham said.
Dunham’s act of courage earned him the Medal of Valor, a national award for public safety officers and contributed to his being named the 2014 Wichita Fire Department Firefighter of the Year, awards he was presented with at a banquet earlier this year.
The fire happened at Parklane Alley Apartments in Wichita, and Dunham, 40, then a lieutenant, and his team evacuated the three-story apartment building that had flames reaching from the bottom floor to the top.
“I couldn’t have done it without my crew doing exactly what they have trained to do,” Dunham said. With Dunham’s three firefighters occupied helping people off apartment balconies, Dunham ascended three flights of smoky stairs to reach the woman he could hear whimpering. To find her, he used his thermal camera, which indicates to firefighters where people are located in dense smoke. He said the woman could not respond to instructions that would lead her to safety, so he moved her there by himself.
“People ask you, ‘Were you afraid you were going to die?’ Um, no,” Dunham said. “We train for it; that’s what we specifically train to do. Training keeps you from being afraid.”
Dunham joined the Wichita Fire Department in 1998 after volunteering with the Fire Reserves for several years. He worked his way up to lieutenant after about 10 years, and several months ago he was promoted to captain, in command of his own firehouse, Station No. 2.
Dunham would tell you he achieved success with the fire department because he is not afraid of hard work. Then he would brush off any further compliments or pats on the back in his typical way, full of humility.
Heck, his wife, Candice, whom he married in June, did not even know he saved the woman’s life until several days later. It was just another day on the job, he said, even though he admitted some firefighters go their entire careers without pulling a barely conscious person out of a fire.
Remarkable was when the woman visited him at the fire station last month to tell him thank you. “That was pretty cool,” he said.
That experience probably outranked getting the awards, he said.
“It’s a privilege to have it recognized, but, then again, it was my job,” Dunham said. “I should be fired if I wouldn’t have done it.”