Firefighter A Man Of Quiet Action

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There's a certain timeless quality about Garrett Ward, Payson's newest firefighter.

Anyone ancient enough to remember laconic Hollywood actor Gary Cooper would recognize it immediately.

Cooper, like Ward, was a man of action, not words. Whenever Cooper was asked a question, no matter the complexity, he would likely answer "yup" or "nope," and then quietly amble off.

For instance.

"Mr. Cooper, did you really save an entire town from a band of crazed gunslingers at high noon?"

"Yup." Amble.

Come to think of it, Ward is even more humble and reserved than that. Asked if he ever saved a life in the line of duty, he at first answers, "nope."

But a half hour later, the truth comes out.

"We got called to a residence in North Payson where an infant was choking," he said. "We got there, I jumped off the engine, grabbed the baby, gave it some back blows and it started to cry. That was probably one of the best feelings I've had as a firefighter.

"The baby was at home with its grandma, who was pretty happy. Then the mother came home, and she was pretty happy," Ward said. "When we're responding to a call involving a child, we probably drive just a little bit faster, move a little more quickly. When I was on the back of the fire truck trying to get to that child, it seemed to take forever. But we probably got there in less than a minute.

"We were in time. That's all that matters. Anybody on the engine could have done it. Anybody on the engine would have done it. It's just that I got there first. It's no big deal."

But what that story said about Ward is that he's a born firefighter even though it took him all the way to the age of 5 to realize that's what he wanted to do with his life.

Born in Los Angeles in 1972, Ward and his family moved to Arizona two years later. He lived in the Valley through his junior year at Ironwood High School, went north for a year at Flagstaff High, then returned to Phoenix with his diploma in hand.

After one semester at Herkemer County College in New York, he finished up 1991 by joining the Marine Corps. He did boot camp at Ferris Island, went to North Carolina for infantry school, did a year each in San Francisco and Seattle on security guard detail, followed by three years in Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif.

"And then I got out," Ward said, wrapping up that chapter in his life.

His next step, he knew, was to fulfill a near-lifelong dream.

"I knew I wanted to be a firefighter, he said. "It was something that had been tooling around in my head since I was 5. So I started educating myself, and volunteered for the Twenty-Nine Palms Fire Department."

Why?

"Helping people out is a major part of the attraction," he said. "It's not the big fire where the house burns down and everyone stands around afterwards going, 'Oh, wow, that was a big fire.' It's the little fires where you save the house and the belongings, and the people are going, 'Oh my God, you're the best.' Those are the ones that really count."

Ward relocated to Payson for only one reason: He wanted to live in Northern Arizona. Anywhere in Northern Arizona.

"Before I moved here, I'd only been to Payson once," he said. "All I cared about were the pines."

While waiting for a firefighting job to come along, he accepted a job with the local (and now-defunct) arm of Arizona's Boy's Ranch, from which he was downsized into unemployment after eight months.

He had been working as a paid, on-call firefighter for the Payson Fire Department, and maintained that status until last April, when he was hired full time not only beating out a sizable number of fellow applicants, but doing so well in the department's testing process that he landed the No. 1 spot on the list of candidates.

Ward just celebrated his second anniversary of marriage to his wife, Nicole Dudley, a teacher at Rim Country Middle School and a 30-year resident of Payson. They have two sons: Alex, 5 (from a previous relationship of Ward's), and Noah, 3 months.

"My profession makes Nicole nervous sometimes," Ward said after some prodding. "The first times I started going out on calls, she'd call her mom every half hour, saying, 'He's not back yet. He's at a fire.'

"Her mom would say, 'I'm sure he's OK, go back to sleep.' But she's coping better with it now."

As for Ward's parents, "I think they're just happy I got out of the Marines, because that's a lot more dangerous than firefighting."

After several moments, Ward finally finds the words to describe why he loves his job.

"I love a good challenge, and fires are definitely a challenge," he said. "I guess part of it is my Marine Corps mentality, where I view everything as a tactical situation that needs to be solved.

"It's stretching it to say that big fires excite me, or that I want them to happen. But I do enjoy the challenge of controlling fire."

With that, Garrett Ward quietly ambled off, Gary Cooper-style.

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