Evergreen first responder wears many hats

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Portrait of Jackie Smith, one of the firefighter/paramedics with Evergreen Fire and Rescue on shift on Frday, May 4.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

While Evergreen Fire Rescue Lt. Jackie Smith may have gained acclaim for her life-saving efforts involving a pair of chickens, defining her for that alone would be grossly unjust.

In addition to her firefighting and emergency duties with more than one department, Smith has worn and still wears many hats — as a mother, mentor, entrepreneur and business woman.

The chicken save, from a heavily smoke-damaged house fire in April, brought her plenty of admiration, but it’s far from her biggest accomplishment.

The Kalispell woman credits her involvement in the junior firefighter program in Hot Springs for turning her from a teen who enjoyed mischief to one who has embraced service and hard work.

“I loved it, and I wanted more,” Smith said of the program.

When Smith decided to join the program in 2006 while she was a senior year in high school, it was the beginning of what has become her livelihood.

A year later, Smith became an emergency medical technician and joined the Hot Springs Ambulance Service.

After relocating to California for a brief time, she moved back to the Flathead Valley in 2008. It wasn’t long before she had applied to join the Evergreen department at the beginning of 2009.

“At that point, there were only two or three females in the department, but having my EMT certification was a plus for me,” Smith said.

At that time, the U.S. Congress had approved a measure to provide money that would help pay firefighters.

So, Smith ended up joining the Evergreen crew as a part-time firefighter. She later moved back to her native Hot Springs after buying a house there and racked up the miles between there and Kalispell, all while still volunteering for her hometown fire department.

“I commuted between the two places and really learned a lot,” Smith said. “The wildfire seasons were very bad in 2011 and 2012 and it was a very busy time.”

Smith’s desire for more responsibility led her to become a paramedic.

“I wanted to be in charge of bigger calls, so I went back to school at [Flathead Valley Community College] and graduated from their paramedic program in 2015,” Smith said.

Smith’s very chaotic life soon became even more hectic. At one point, she said she held seven different positions, including a paramedic job with Three Rivers EMS, a triage technician at Kalispell Regional Medical Center and a firefighter/paramedic at Evergreen.

Then she was awarded an internship with the A.L.E.R.T. air ambulance in Kalispell.

“It was a real honor to be chosen for it and I loved it,” Smith said.

Smith trained on helicopters and fixed-wing planes that are utilized for rescue efforts.

“That summer of 2015 was really busy,” Smith recalled with a laugh.

At the end of that summer, Smith was promoted to lieutenant with Evergreen. She ran training programs for the department and others, and also earned her critical-care paramedic license that allowed her to work with patients dealing with more serious health issues.

Smith also became certified in swift-water rescue.

The last few years have brought more domestic bliss to Smith’s busy world.

Smith and her significant other, Eric Emmert, the chef de cuisine at Whitefish Lake Lodge, welcomed a new baby boy, Asher, in 2016.

“Asher just loves seeing the fire truck,” Smith said.

Just last year, Smith may have made her biggest save.

Her sister’s son, Tanner, was a teenager having trouble making good life choices, as Smith put it.

“My sister asked us to take Tanner in. He was getting into trouble and we didn’t want to see him get into the system, so we welcomed him to our home,” Smith said.

Smith is proud to report that Tanner’s grades in school have improved, he has a job, bought a car and is on track to graduate on schedule in 2019.

Smith said she owes much to her parents, Dan and Leslee.

“They taught me all kinds of life skills and the value of hard work,” Smith said.

Smith lost her dad to a heart attack in September 2017.

“It was difficult and having it be a heart attack, considering I’ve trained so many people to give CPR, but there was little that could have been done,” she said.

But she knows her father’s spirit lives on because of the many of the life lessons she learned came while working at the Symes Hotel in Hot Springs after her parents bought it in 1997.

“I did all kinds of jobs there and one of them was being the lifeguard at the pool. I think that was really the catalyst for me going into the work I’ve been doing,” Smith said. “There was something about it that I just wanted more of.”

Smith’s chicken saves were more than just Facebook fodder.

“We appreciate Chief Mahugh for calling us in to that fire. All four of us on that crew were females and for two of them, it was their first time in a structure fire,” Smith said, referring to the call Creston Fire Department received, which Evergreen assisted with.

She explained they had cleared the home when they saw the chicken coops through the haze of the smoke and noticed movement.

“We saw a few of them still had a little fight left and when we gave them the oxygen and they responded, it was a great feeling,” she said.

Smith’s work has allowed her to witness the highs and lows people experience every day.

“Seeing kids going through bad things is very tough. They are really innocent. What happens to them is not their fault, and the abuse cases are not anything anyone wants to deal with, but we need to be there for them.

“But when you get to see a baby be born or help bring someone back by giving them CPR, it’s a feeling that’s hard to describe,” Smith said.

Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.

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