“Fire is fire is fire — no matter where you are,” said Deer Creek Assistant Fire Chief Michael Montgomery.
When the fire chief said these words, he was referring to the physical properties of a fire, and he is right. No matter where you are in the world, there are a few things you can count on and fire being hot is one of them.
However, the chief’s words have another meaning. Like fire, the bond between the men and women who dedicate their lives to the fire service transcends ethnic boundaries and political divides. It doesn’t see race or religion. Like the world’s most welcoming yet rigorous fraternities, the bond between firefighters is strong and sacred.
Few know this more than Oklahoma City University Exchange Student and Deer Creek Volunteer Firefighter Markus Kostmann.
Kostmann, a native of Klagenfurt, Austria, came to Oklahoma City University through a semester-long exchange program focused on American Studies. He is attending college to become a high school teacher focusing on mathematics and English as a second language. Most Austrians natively speak one of the official languages of German, Hungarian, Slovenian or Austrian German; however, 40 percent of the population speaks English, which is a dip from the 51 percent of Europeans who are fluent in English.
Kostmann, who is a firefighter in Austria, reached out to the Deer Creek Fire Department before his arrival to Oklahoma to see about volunteering at the station.
“Chief came to us at an officers’ meeting one night and said there is an Austrian firefighter coming over for an exchange program and wants to know if he can come be a part of the department,” Montgomery said. “We all said absolutely.”
Montgomery picked up Kostmann at the airport when he arrived in the states and eventually introduced him to the fire crew.
“Compared to America, Austria is much more closed off,” Kostmann said. “I was worried that I would be treated as a guest, but they (Deer Creek Fire) welcomed me and treated me as part of their family from day one. I got my gear and a locker just like anyone else.”
Kostmann is the head of his community’s youth fire department program, which is a program that allows high school students to train and work with Austrian fire departments. He himself has been a volunteer firefighter since age 16.
Although Kostmann has years of firefighting experience, there are some differences that the Austrian had to overcome. To do so, Deer Creek firefighters worked with Kostmann during regular training sessions and one-on-one to help bring him up to speed with American firefighting.
“We did learn that their tactics are extremely different than ours both in medicine and in firefighting,” Montgomery said. “We spent a little more time with him during our one-on-one stuff.”
Although Kostmann is a paramedic in Austria, paramedics and firefighters don’t work together regularly, but he also noted that there is more than physical or geographic differences between the two country’s firefighters.
“There is a mentality difference,” Kostmann said. “American firefighters are much more aggressive and proactive when fighting fires. Austrian firefighters are a bit more cautious. It was kind of shocking to see how different the two styles can be.”
Deer Creek Fire Department showed Kostmann During a one-on-one training session the Deer Creek firefighters showed Kostmann why American firefighters are so aggressive.
“We are much more aggressive because of the way we build houses,” Montgomery said. “In Austria they use more masonry and stone materials to build structures, while we use sheetrock and wood.”
If everything goes as planned, Kostmann’s experiences won’t be held to himself but shared by both his American and Austrian fire families.
“I think it has been a learning experience for both,” Kostmann said. “I hope that they have learned as much from me as I have from them. I’m definitely going to be taking back some of the things I learned here back to Austria.”
To many, the idea of moving to another country and volunteering to fight fires may seem crazy or strange. To Assistant Chief Montgomery, it isn’t his commitment to service that surprised Montgomery but his commitment to success.
“Its kind of the fireman’s mentality,” Montgomery said. “We want to do our job no matter where we are. I commend Markus. Not only did he come here and go to college, but he took four classes and ended with a 3.75 gpa. He came every Tuesday to work with us. He came and stayed every Thursday night, and he took calls with us throughout the weekend.
“It speaks to his dedication to the fire service, his dedication to learning and to his school. I have no doubt that when he is done he will continue to excel in his professional career as teacher and as a firefighter,” Montgomery said.
Kostmann, now back in Austria, looks forward to an opportunity to return to the Deer Creek community and visit with his firefighter brethren.
“Such a strong bond, they don’t differentiate me as an Austrian Firefighter, “Kostmann said. “I am one of them. Whether its through the Masters Program or on vacation, I’ll be back.”