Matt Horn recalls vividly the day that Jason Eagan walked into the Sandoval firehouse and said he wanted to become a firefighter.
“He came to the fire station one day, and he wanted an application, so I gave him one,” said Horn, a lieutenant in the fire department in Marion County, Illinois. “A little bit later, he came back and asked if I could help him fill it out. I helped him fill it out, and we kind of made a little friendship.”
Horn knew that becoming a firefighter would be a challenge for Jason, who is 33 and has Down syndrome. But Jason was persistent.
“From that day on, he kept coming to the station every day and hanging out and being interested in the day-to-day activities. Then about a month later, we voted on him,” Horn said.
There was disagreement. There was concern.
“It was mixed. Some people were against it. But in our bylaws, it doesn’t say someone with Down syndrome can’t help us,” Horn said. “After a lot of debating and talking, we came to the conclusion that it’d be best to let him join the fire department, but under our cadet guidelines.”
He passed the firefighters’ physical. Paperwork was filled out, and it became official: Jason was a firefighter.
That was a year ago. Though Jason doesn’t go into burning buildings or engage in perilous rescues, he’s otherwise a full-fledged member of the department.
He trains with the other firefighters. He helps with chores at the station. He helps at fundraisers and with charity events, such as Toys for Tots.
At a fire, he might help roll up hoses afterward, or go get the exhaust fan off the truck. He helps get the trucks ready for service again after a call.
“He’s got a pager. If we get a call, he comes to the fire station and waits for somebody to tell him what to do,” Horn said. “Sometimes he doesn’t get to leave the fire station, but that’s no different from any other cadet.”
Jason resides about a block from the fire department. When the pager goes off, it’s time to hustle over to the station, even if it’s in the middle of the night, and you arrive still wearing your pajamas adorned with Stewie, a character from the animated TV show “Family Guy.” Yeah, it happened.
Jason has his own fire suit and helmet.
“We do have to kind of shelter him — what we do can be dangerous — but when he told me that was his dream his whole life, to be a firefighter, I couldn’t give up on him,” Horn said. “I had to find a way to fit him into our fire department, and so far this seems to be working pretty good.”
Jason said the potential danger doesn’t scare him.
“No, sir,” he said. “Because I’ve always liked dangerous.”
Becoming a firefighter has meant the world to him.
“I put on this uniform right here, it changed my life,” he said.
His other duties include riding in the truck if there’s a parade, and helping with fire-safety presentations for school children.
Jason said he tells children, “You need to stay out of the kitchen, so you don’t get burned. Don’t play in the kitchen.”
Jason also tells people that if their clothing catches fire, “Stop, drop, cover your face and roll over.”
Horn adds, “Roll back and forth.”
“Roll back and forth,” Jason says.
The Sandoval Fire Protection District and Ambulance Service has two full-time employees, one of whom is Horn. The other 25 or so members of the department serve as volunteers, including Jason.
Horn had seen Jason around town before Jason came into the station and asked for an application, but Horn wasn’t yet acquainted with him.
Horn said having Jason on the department has been “very rewarding — very rewarding. I take a lot of pride in seeing him grow in his volunteer service.”
Jason said Horn is more than his lieutenant.
“He’s a wonderful guy,” Jason said. “He takes care of me. He’s a nice person — a nice guy.”