By Sue Moore
When Ken Hovenkamp of Vicksburg first offered his services as a fire services chaplain three years ago, there were only five who volunteered their time and resources to this effort throughout the county. He has been instrumental in helping to encourage others to volunteer for the role, as he does with the Portage Public Safety Department’s men and women.
There are 15 fire departments, 10 police departments and a sheriff’s department in Kalamazoo County. Many of their responders while on duty face life and death situations daily.
Their goal is public service. But who serves the first responders?
Chaplains are the first line of help for these men and women. There are 10 chaplains now in departments in the county who volunteer time and talent to listen and help both the victims of fire, traffic accidents, robberies and physical assaults as well as the staff of each department.
“The need became perfectly clear that the first responders needed counseling too upon the death of Comstock Fire Chief Switalski,” Hovenkamp said.
The department’s ranks were devastated by the senseless accident; Hovenkamp and Roger Ullman, chaplain for the city of Kalamazoo Public Safety, brought in a debriefing team to help employees talk out their feelings before the chief’s funeral, then gave the eulogy during the public memorial.
“I would love to see a chaplain in every department,” Hovenkamp said. “It is very rewarding although it takes some time away from family and work obligations.” Before he started to ride along with the Portage police and fire departments, he underwent intensive law enforcement chaplain training. “It is mostly evening work. I go in at shift change, usually about 6 p.m. and ride with police and fire as I rotate between the three Portage stations. I can hop on a truck and go with them or be called to the scene of an accident during the day. My job is to help counsel the victims or maybe get family out of the way as the paramedics provide treatment to the person in danger. I follow up with victims the next day or week.”
“A big part of the chaplain’s job is death notification and funerals. I like this the least but it is very important as to how a family is notified of a loss. It’s what they will remember forever. It’s the tone of voice and the words you use. For one family’s loss, I had to go to four different locations to notify individuals separately.”
Texas Township just took on a chaplain for its fire department. “An old friend of mine, Jason Kosinski of Schoolcraft who pastored a large church had already been volunteering as a fireman in Texas Township. I encouraged him to take on the extra duties of chaplain and the chief was pleased with the arrangement,” Hovenkamp said.
In Vicksburg, Tracy McMillan, chief of South Kalamazoo County Fire Authority, went next door last month to recruit Pastor Greg Culver, the new minister at Vicksburg United Methodist Church on S. Main Street.
One need not be a minister to serve as a chaplain; Hovenkamp is not certified as a pastor. “I felt the call to serve those who serve us as there is a limited network of resources available to public servants. They may need our help when dealing with the mental and emotional rigors of their job,” Hovenkamp said.
Hovenkamp serves as a trustee on the Schoolcraft Township board and was appointed to serve on the Fire Authority board in July. He recently launched a new ministry collecting items of need for families of victims. These items include furniture, appliances and other goods. They are stored in a new facility that Hovenkamp renovated in Brady Township. He provides these items for free to victims of fire or other such incidents to tide them through hard times. He is co-owner of Michigan Election Resources in Kalamazoo.