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All fired up

Four members of the Lanter family are involved in firefighting in Banks and Forest Grove
by: Chase Allgood Dwight Lanter (left) and his sons Andrew (center left) and Chris (center right), along with his brother, Mike, have collectively put in 69 years of service as volunteers or staffers at western Washington County fire departments.

Dwight and Chris Lanter sound so similar talking through their radios that dispatchers often get confused. But as soon as they start addressing each other as 'dad' and 'son,' those listening know for sure who's speaking.

Dwight Lanter, his two sons, Andrew and Chris, and his brother, Mike, all work in local fire departments.

Dwight is now a captain and one of the Forest Grove Fire and Rescue's 19 full-time employees. After working in the field for a few years and earning his Fire Science and Force Management degrees from Portland Community College, Dwight landed his dream job in Forest Grove in 1985.

'I finally got the job I wanted where I wanted to be,' said Dwight.

Grew up in area

Dwight grew up in the area and fell in love with firefighting at a young age. Family friends who owned the Western States Fire Apparatus Company in Cornelius let him play on the fire engines they manufactured.

He would go to the shop, honk the horns and watch as the engines were built. His decision to become a volunteer firefighter with the Cornelius Fire Department at the age of 18 was a natural move.

As a lifelong resident of the Forest Grove and Cornelius communities, Dwight knows a lot of people here. Feeling so connected with the community is both a pro and a con, though.

'It can be hard to help people you've known all your life,' Dwight said. At the same time, he feels lucky to assist these familiar faces in times of need.

'Somebody's gotta go do it,' observed Dwight.

Convinced brother

Dwight said he convinced his brother Mike, 47, to become a firefighter too. Mike is now a shift captain at Forest Grove Fire and Rescue.

Chris, 23, is a volunteer lieutenant at the Banks Fire Department and a part time paramedic for Metro West. Chris started working for the department at age 16 through the Banks High School intern program and joined the college student program after graduation.

Like his father, Chris was introduced to the profession early on. Chris and Andrew would bring their father dinner every night at the station where they played on the engines after eating.

'I got really comfortable with it,' said Chris. 'You just kind of get sucked in.'

Andrew, 25, took to the profession too. He works as a support volunteer at the Forest Grove fire station, where he organizes and works at community events - including the department's annual toy drive.

He also travels to call sites for fires and accidents, often with his dad, where he keeps the rehabilitation tents fully supplied and assists the firefighters.

'Andrew spends a lot of time here and is really dedicated to this department,' said Dwight.

'I feel very honored that they both have a desire to be in the fire service,' said Dwight. 'I'm very proud of both of them. Both of them have the desire to help people.'

Success story

Dwight said a passion for helping people is absolutely necessary to be a firefighter.

'It really does make a difference in peoples' lives,' Dwight said. 'We often see people at their worst. We just try to make life more bearable for them.'

Recalling when he saved a two-month-old infant on B Street, Dwight still smiles broadly when telling the story.

After arriving at the house to a baby in cardiac arrest and two frantic parents who felt helpless, Dwight began cardio-pulmonary resuscitation and continued all the way to the hospital in the ambulance. He didn't know what happened to the child until five months later, when the parents came into the fire department pushing a stroller and thanked him for his service.

Through all the years and all the people Dwight has encountered, this one still stands out. 'That was my greatest success story,' beams Dwight.

He said instances like this compensate for all of the hard times.

'It's the best job I've ever had,' said Dwight. 'If I had it to do all over again, I would.'

He does admit, however, the job is not without tribulation. While providing a valuable and rewarding service to the community, the profession can also be a personal burden.

'Most of it's not real pleasant,' said Dwight. 'You go, you do your job, but it takes a lot out of you.'

Wes Proffit, a volunteer firefighter in Cornelius, grew up with Mike and Dwight. They were neighbors, and the Proffit family owned Western States Fire Apparatus with the Halls, where Mike and Dwight both worked.

Proffit knows what the Lanter family has endured in their decades-long commitment to firefighting.

'You got to love what you do or you don't do it,' Proffit said of being a firefighter. 'It's rewarding to help people in their time of need.'

Hardest thing

In order to cope with the events of the day, he talks to his wife, who was also a volunteer firefighter for five years, his sons, and a counselor once a week. Sometimes Dwight still wakes up dreaming about things that happened 20 years ago.

He suffers from occasional nightmares and even post-traumatic stress disorder, which he said is common for many firefighters.

According to Dwight, there are more resources available now to help cope with the stresses of the job. 'The hardest thing is for a firefighter to say, yeah, I have to go talk to someone,' he said.

His sons and brother know where he's coming from.

Both Chris and Andrew have been on a lot of emotionally strenuous calls. Chris will never forget the time he was on duty when a high school friend of his shot herself.

'Some people say they get used to telling people they've lost loved ones … you never get used to it,' said Chris.

'It's not how many people I've lost, it's the good things,' said Chris. 'You focus on the good calls more.'

Dwight agrees that there is never an easy way to deliver heartbreaking news to people.

'I think if I ever got to the point when I didn't feel any sorrow, it'd be time for me to stop,' said Dwight.

Not only is it emotionally difficult, but also hard on the physical self and family relationships.

Dwight fell off a roof 12 years ago when he was trying to put out a fire and hurt his back. After re-injuring it while assisting at the scene of a logging accident, his back continued to pose problems. Dwight had back surgery last October and is only working on light duty, but he hopes to back to normal in a few months.

The schedule is challenging, the hours are long, the stresses can take their toll and the unpredictability only adds to the strain. Dwight admits his family has been disappointed - he's had to miss birthdays and he often upsets plans when he is called in unexpectedly.

He tries to make it up.

Second family

Dwight considers his fellow firefighters to be a second family. The 'brotherhood' is partly a product of bonding at the station and protecting one another during emergencies.

Although the job is often hard on loved ones, it's brought Dwight even closer to his.

Chris said both he and Andrew were aware of the drawbacks of the job, but they did it anyway.

Dwight is sure his sons became firefighters for the right reasons, not just because it was what he did. 'Whatever path they would've taken, I would have supported them 100 percent,' he said.

'This has been my whole life,' he added. 'It's nice to see some Lanters coming in.'

Lynda Scamahorn, who owns Wonderworld Daycare, where Andrew and Chris were enrolled when they were little, described the Forest Grove fire department as 'a big family' where the kids are included.

Dwight, Scamahorn noted, has been coming to her daycare for more than 20 years to deliver fire safety talks. He brings the fire engine and gives all the kids fire hats.

The children eat it up, even though most are unaware of the Lanter family's contribution to firefighting in two communities.

Their dedication isn't lost on Scamahorn, however.

'It's in the Lanter blood,' she said.