When summer came after Tyler Gunkel finished eighth grade, and before he started his freshman year at Oakdale High School, the 14-year-old figured he wanted to do more with his free time than stay at home tied to a computer or television. Too young to get a paying summer job, Tyler thought about volunteering his time at the city’s nearby fire station on G Street – a short bike ride away.
“I was hesitant if they’d let him,” said Tyler’s father Mike Gunkel. “I told him these are ‘grown men at work, I don’t know if they’ll have time.’ Then I realized that was the adult in me talking and told him to give it a try.”
Mike Gunkel said he was surprised later that afternoon to get a phone call from a fire captain asking if it was all right.
Soon Tyler found himself at the station vacuuming, assisting with clean up in the station and even washing the fire rigs and being their ‘go-fer’ as equipment was restocked after calls.
“I was too young to go on calls (policy requires riders be at least 16), but I really enjoyed hearing their stories when they returned,” Tyler said. “I had aspirations to be a firefighter before I started, but after a couple of weeks, I knew this is what I was going to do.”
After a few weeks, Tyler was accepted as a regular member of the station crew and the various staffers provided him with Stanislaus Consolidated Fire T-shirts and a cap. He was even given the station nickname “Carlos” by some of the firefighters.
“It comes from the ‘Hangover’ movies,” said Tyler. “The baby’s name is Tyler, but the main characters don’t know its real name so they call him Carlos.”
His efforts and everyday attendance impressed the men at Stanislaus Consolidated Station 5.
“He proved himself by what he said and did,” said Fire Captain Rick Bachman. “His words reflected his actions and he did what he said he would do.”
At times Tyler got to view training exercises as methods and tactics were explained to him by the firefighters involved. At one point, during a rope rescue training exercise, Tyler was put in charge as “commander” of the crew directing the lowering, rescuing of an individual, and the process to safely remove a victim from a hazardous situation.
During mid-summer, Firefighter Louie Morua noticed Tyler showed up with a flat tire on his bike and when repairing it also felt the bike was small for the teen.
“It was closer to the size that my 8-year-old would ride,” Morua said.
As summer wound down, and as gratitude for all his hard work, Morua, president of the firefighter’s union, IAFF Local 3300, proposed to the membership that they buy Tyler a new, bigger bike.
“You don’t see this every day,” Morua said of the volunteer junior firefighter that just showed up without any prompting. “He definitely deserved it.”
Morua said the membership was in overwhelming support of the bike purchase for Tyler. In addition to the union donation toward the bike, other firefighters donated personal funds.
Morua approached Oakdale Bicycle Shop owner David Enz, who also gladly marked down the price of the new mountain bike for Tyler.
Prior to school starting, the crew arranged a party for Tyler and also invited his parents to attend also. At the gathering, he was presented with the bike and many thanks for his contributions.
“This has been the best summer of my life,” Tyler told The Leader. “Being a firefighter is very interesting. I hope someday to also be able to help people like they do.”
Bachman said that having Tyler at the station was such a success, that the district is considering re-establishing the Explorer program for interested high school students.
“He definitely re-inspired that,” Morua said.
As far as for the fall and during school hours, Tyler still is at the fire station after school as his schedule and homework allow.
“This is not over,” Bachman said. “He’s earned his keep and we have no intentions of letting him go.”