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Burns dedicated to service of community

By Dave Rogers | Published Wednesday, February 15, 2012

BUSY LADY - Dawnelle Burns, Firefighter of the Year for Runaway Bay, made 72 percent of all her department's emergency runs in 2011 while still maintaining a full-time job and taking care of three school-age boys with her husband away in the U.S. Army. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

The Golden Rule has always ruled for Dawnelle Burns, and now the folks at Runaway Bay are reaping the harvest.

”I was always taught that you treat other people the way you want to be treated,” said Burns, who was recently named “Firefighter of the Year” by Runaway Bay for the second, consecutive year.

In 2011, she responded to 126 of the 175 calls (72 percent) handled by the Runaway Bay Fire Department.

She is also raising three children while her husband, Shawn, a chief warrant officer in the U.S. Army, is on active duty at Fort Sill, Okla. And she works a full-time job at Brookshire’s in Bridgeport.

In addition to volunteering with the fire department, Burns is a board member of the Greater Runaway Bay Alliance, a commissioner on the Runaway Bay Planning and Zoning Commission and a member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Board.

She also volunteers at the “Tiger Farm,” also known as the Center for Animal Research and Education (CARE), when she can.

“I do it because I want to help,” she said. “I hope that if I need help somebody else would render the same help to me.”

A native of Kansas City, Kan., Burns, 35, said her late parents, Randy and Kimberly Ford, are her inspiration.

“When my dad was alive, he was a Shriner, so he was all about helping people,” she said.

Burns said her father was killed by a drunk driver in 2004. Cancer took her mother in 2008.

When her mother died, the Burns family was living in Korea, where Shawn was stationed. To settle her parents’ estate, Dawnelle moved back to the United States with her children.

She picked Runaway Bay “because it’s the closest I wanted to get [to Kansas City]” and, with her husband due to return to Fort Sill after his Korea deployment, “I wanted it where he could at least come home on weekends.”

Shawn is starting a two-year deployment to Germany in May.

With sons Matthew, 18, Christopher, 15, and Shawndale, 8, enrolled in Bridgeport schools, Burns threw herself into her new community.

A U.S. Army veteran herself, Burns said she joined the fire department in 2009 “because of my dad, for the medical side of it.”

She did a lot more than just join, it turned out.

“I went to one fire and I was hooked,” she recalled. “I told myself I needed to get more training, so I went to the fire academy. Now it [the fire department] is my second home.”

Burns is a certified firefighter and certified emergency medical technician, ratings not required and somewhat rare among volunteer firefighters. She is a captain of her department and also serves as secretary for the volunteer organization.

“I’d like to go to paramedic school and be on the ambulance,” she said. “But right now, my plate is overflowing.”

How busy does it get?

“There was a day last summer when I was headed to work [at Brookshire's] and the Scout Ranch was on fire,” she said. “They toned [called] us out. I called my boss and told him I had to respond for a little bit. He said, ‘No problem.’

“That was at 2 p.m. I got released from the fire at 5 a.m. I had to be at work at 6 a.m. I stopped by the house for a shower and made it on time.”

One time, Runaway Bay Chief James Gates notified Burns’ boss at Brookshire’s, Jeff Smith, that she might be running late.

“My store manager is awesome,” Burns said. “I don’t call into work much, but we had a structure fire one day, and my chief called in [to Brookshire's] and said I was inside a burning house and that I’d be to work as soon as I got out.”

With only 10 firefighters, things can get busy for a Runaway Bay firefighter.

“Father’s Day last year, I was making homemade lasagna for my husband and we got toned out for a medical call,” Burns remembered. “I went and came back home. And then I got toned out for a structure fire.

“I texted my chief: ‘I’m not going to respond. I’m making dinner.’ But then I got in my truck and went to the fire.

“Last year, my kids said they wanted to go to the homecoming parade. I was at a grass fire, and I left the scene to take them to it. I was actually standing next to Main Street with my wildlands gear on.”

But firefighting is small potatoes to being a military mom.

“It’s hard work,” she said of raising three kids without a man’s steady presence. “We can’t have our meltdowns because daddy’s gone. We have to have our breakdowns behind closed doors.

“You try to talk to other people, but they don’t understand because their husbands come home every night. I think that’s why I do so much. I don’t want to have downtime. I need to stay busy.”

Email Dave at drogers@wcmessenger.com.

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