Champaign fire lieutenant gives students hands-on training

Champaign fire lieutenant gives students hands-on training

CHAMPAIGN – Earlier this month, on a chilly, windy and dark Thursday evening – during a burst of snow flurries, no less – a group of teenagers tended to a patient stuck on a roof.

It was a mock exercise, really, and the patient was actually a mannequin, and the mannequin wasn't placed on a high-pitched roof but behind Fire Station No. 5. Still, the students worked to "package the patient," strapping the mannequin to a backboard and placing it in a basket of sorts to prevent it from falling out while being taken down a ladder.

"It was cold, but they hung in there," said Dorval Norwood, a Champaign firefighter who works with students who are interested in firefighting as a career.

The idea behind Champaign Fire Explorers is to show the students, ages 14 to 21, what firefighters do.

"The temperature may not be perfect but we still have got a job we have to do," Norwood said.

So listen up, future firefighters.

"It's not like 'Backdraft,'" he said, referring to the 1991 movie about Chicago firefighters.

The Champaign department typically deals with 20 to 25 fires a year, not including trash bin or car fires, he said. The department responds to medical calls and other emergencies, such as workers who fall into ditches or from a scaffold. And they've been known to retrieve those gamblers of nine lives, local furry felines who climb too high for their own good. Norwood himself has scaled Holy Cross Church in Champaign to retrieve a perpetrator.

A lieutenant with the Champaign Fire Department, Norwood grew up in the Darrow Homes housing project on Chicago's South Side. As a kid, he remembers watching in awe as police officers or firefighters responded to emergencies in the neighborhood.

But he wasn't sure what he needed to do to become a police officer or a firefighter. Did you need to know someone to get a job on the force? What was a day at the department like? he wondered.

"To have had that knowledge, to have had a mentor, would have helped tremendously," he said.

Today, Norwood is that person for local teens – particularly minorities, who might be interested in becoming firefighters one day.

"There are some people who do not necessarily lack an interest but feel intimidated," he said.

He said he sees his job not as one of pushing a student into the profession, but making sure he or she has information about it.

"I can't express enough how fair, competent and compassionate a man he is," Champaign fire Lt. Jim Lievano said. "When you're around him you can't help but feel you're with someone who's a high-quality person."

Fairness, competency, compassion – those are key characteristics that children pick up on, Lievano said.

If a student has a problem or question, Norwood "does his best to answer, and he explains in a way so you can understand it," said 16-year-old Jazzie Groce of Rantoul, the only female in this year's Explorers.

The first time she took off her air pack and crawled through a hole for an exercise, "I was sold," she said, on firefighting.

Firefighting runs in the family. Her father and brother are firefighters.

"But I wanted to check it out and see what it was about. Now I'm thinking about it as a career," she said.

Norwood came to the profession by way of the Air Force.

After graduating from Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago – "I wasn't ready for college. ... I wasn't mature enough" – Norwood joined the Air Force. He knew he wanted to be in law enforcement and eventually Norwood trained in security and fire protection.

His assignments with the Air Force initially took him to South Dakota, where he was part of the security force protecting missile silos, and later to Italy and Guam. In 1989 he returned to Illinois and landed a position at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul.

It was there he thought about joining the fire service and tested for the Champaign Fire Department. But at the time there were no openings and Norwood accepted an Air Force assignment in Georgia. About a year and a half later, a position opened in Champaign and Norwood got the job.

He started with the department in the fall of 1994.

Throughout the years he's had one heck of a commute.

He's lived and worked here, but his wife, Gloria-Ann, also an Air Force employee, and their three children have lived in Ohio due to her job at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

"You do what you have to do at the time," he said.

That entails driving, as often as possible, the 3.5 to 4 hours across the midsection of the country. He has missed only a handful of his son's football or high school band performances, he said.

His two daughters, Aesha and Kimberly-Ann, are in college now and after their son, Jason, graduates from high school, and Gloria-Ann leaves the Air Force, they'll settle in East Central Illinois. For Thanksgiving, the family all traveled to Chicago to visit with Norwood's relatives (his brother is a firefighter in Chicago), to shop and see the holiday light displays in the Loop.

"This is it. I do enjoy living in Illinois; this is where I was born and raised," he said.

Getting to know Dorval Norwood

Occupation: Lieutenant with the Champaign Fire Department

Family: Wife Gloria-Ann; daughters Aesha and Kimberly-Ann; son Jason

Home: Rantoul

Quote: "It's not like 'Backdraft,'" he says of firefighting

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