Editor’s note: Our series, “Wheeling@Work,” is an effort to provide readers with insight and information into our city government, highlighting the personalities, programs and processes at work within the City of Wheeling. Today’s story features Wheeling Fire Chief Larry Helms.
“Braithre Thar Gach Ni” — In Irish Gaelic, it means “brotherhood above all.” Among firefighters, this sentiment has been echoed many times as a reminder that often goes against the grain. A reminder against the “every man for himself” mentality that the world would tell us is a virtue. A reminder that people in need have the same hopes and dreams that you do. A reminder the person thrust into danger next to you is your brother or sister, and no one walks alone.
Speak to Wheeling Fire Chief Larry Helms for more than a few minutes, and you’ll get that sense of brotherhood. He is quick to pull the focus off of himself and place it on the men and women who have made the Wheeling Fire Department what it is, what it was, and what it continues to be. A firefighter of 32 years — 12 of those spent as chief — Helms recalls a spirit of brotherhood that brought him into public safety in the first place.
“I got into it really early,” he recalled. “When I was in the Boy Scouts, my scoutmaster was a local volunteer fire chief. When I got old enough to be a junior firefighter, I joined there; then I moved to a department closer to me as a volunteer.”
Growing up on the Ohio side of the river, Helms spent time at Neffs and Glencoe Volunteer Fire Departments. When his friend Ken Saffell suggested they both take the firefighter exam, the men had visions of getting placed at departments in another state.
“He was my buddy on the department, and he said, ‘Hey, let’s test together,’” Helms said of the late Saffell. “We ended up taking the test together, and he later became the chief at Cumberland Trail.”
Finding a home on Wheeling’s fire staff, Helms took his place at the North Wheeling Station, a location he still finds especially helpful to the public.
“We run an ambulance out of that building and being close to the interstate, they’re able to get anywhere in the city pretty quickly and provide additional manpower for any assistance. It works out really well,” Helms said. “I spent most of my career in that station before I was promoted to assistant chief, and then got promoted to chief.”
Now with more than 90 firefighters and personnel spread across seven stations throughout the city, Helms said a typical day as chief comes down to planning, budgeting and following up on safety issues. Being on the frontlines to help tackle the opioid epidemic or staying ahead of inspections and investigations can mean a lot of paperwork.
“I refer to myself as the safety guy and the pencil pusher,” he said. “I’m blessed with a tremendous staff, so I don’t have a whole lot of worries. They keep me in tune and keep me straight.”
Wheeling currently experiences about 7,000 emergency calls each year. Four thousand of those calls require a response from EMS, and about 150 are structure fires. When it comes to managing a fire scene, Helms said his role varies to fit the situation.
“When we go on an incident, the duty chief has his game plan before I even arrive,” he said. “I take over as the safety officer to account for all the staff on scene and make sure they have proper equipment. If it gets into a grand type incident, we expand that system to where the commander becomes the operations chief, and I become the commander, and then my other staff are planning to make sure they have the resources they need. When it comes to actually putting out the fires, they’re still in command of that, and we make sure they have what they need to accomplish their goal.”
While each day in public safety can bring something different and new, at home in Warwood, Helms said he and his wife Peggy enjoy going fishing or spending time at their pool with their three grandchildren.
“We’re homebodies,” he said. “One of the things that interested me back when I bought in Warwood was there isn’t a ton of traffic in and out.”
Helms says he wants those who live and work in Wheeling to know the professionals employed by the Fire Department are a dedicated group who try to put the interest of the public before all else. Whether that work means putting out fires or providing training in CPR and fire extinguishers, the department upholds a brotherhood of shared care and concern.
“Most of the people that come to this job come because it’s what they want to do, not because of the pay,” Helms said. “They are a very dedicated group, and they’re always involved in reaching out for additional training. I have a very good staff, and they always make me proud.”
• Cassie Bendel was born in Wheeling and raised in Bellaire. A graduate of St. Vincent College, she began her writing career as a reporter with The Times Leader and the Steubenville Herald-Star before writing content for SiriusXM Satellite Radio and a national faith-based consulting company. After more than a decade in Pennsylvania, she has moved back to the Ohio Valley with her husband and two sons.