Metro-East Living

He wanted to chase firetrucks as a boy. Now he gets to ride in them.

Teen pursues his dream to be a firefighter

Mascoutah High School graduate Josh Potrawski is pursuing his dream to be a firefighter. He is currently a probationary volunteer with the New Baden Fire Protection District and helps edit the Southern Illinois Fire Incidents Facebook page.
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Mascoutah High School graduate Josh Potrawski is pursuing his dream to be a firefighter. He is currently a probationary volunteer with the New Baden Fire Protection District and helps edit the Southern Illinois Fire Incidents Facebook page.

Most teenagers wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without their cellphones. Josh Potrawski feels the same way about his fire and police pager.

The 18-year-old from rural New Baden was carrying it last summer when he and his girlfriend, Brianna Kaiser, were walking around the Mascoutah Homecoming. After hearing about a house fire, they hopped in his truck and drove to the scene.

“By the time we got there, it was pretty much out, so we left,” said Brianna, 17, a senior at O’Fallon Township High School.

It’s a good thing Brianna is interested in firefighting and emergency medical service. Otherwise, the couple might have problems. Not all girls would cut a date short for smoke and flames.

But Josh is all about firefighting and has been for some time.

“I can still remember in preschool, telling the teacher what I wanted to be when I grew up, and that was a firefighter,” he said. “I always wanted to know where the firetrucks were going, and I wanted to follow them.”

Josh realized his dream earlier this year when he was sworn in as a volunteer firefighter with New Baden Fire Protection District.

He’s still “probationary,” so he can’t charge into burning buildings with front-line firefighters until he gets more experience. But he can go out on calls and provide support services.

“He seems to be a very go-getting young man,” said Fire Chief Matt Flanagan, 42, of New Baden. “He wants to learn. He wants to understand. He wants to be there whenever he can and help however he can. He’s conscientious about what’s going on. He takes this stuff seriously.”

Josh also is a member of O’Fallon-Shiloh EMS Explorers, which is how he met Brianna. She plans to become an emergency medical technician. Her father, Chris Kaiser, is an O’Fallon firefighter.

Explorers can ride in ambulances, do patient assessments and provide general care in limited circumstances.

“The scariest calls are the cardiac-arrest calls,” Josh said. “At that point, people aren’t really able to do anything on their own, so their lives are in your hands.”

The scariest calls are the cardiac-arrest calls. At that point, people aren’t really able to do anything on their own, so their lives are in your hands.

Josh Potrawski on ambulance ride-alongs

Josh also is an editor for the Southern Illinois Fire Incidents Facebook page, which keeps the public informed on fires, car accidents and other emergencies in the region.

He mainly reports fires in St. Clair County and parts of Clinton and Monroe counties.

“He’s on it all the time — unless he’s sleeping,” said page owner Travis Skinner, 21, a St. Clair County dispatcher and volunteer firefighter with the Camp Jackson district in Cahokia. “He’s a very bright kid, and he’s been a great asset to us.”

Josh is following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Butch Klein, a Mascoutah firefighter in the 1970s.

Josh was only 14 when he became a junior firefighter through Swansea Fire Department’s cadet program, which teaches teens about everything from radio communications to vehicle extractions.

He rarely missed training on Monday nights and some weekends, thanks to his mother, Amy Klein, who served as chauffeur-in-chief.

“A lot of little boys want to be firefighters and policemen when they grow up, but it’s never gone away for Josh,” she said. “It’s just a passion that he’s had for a long time.”

A lot of little boys want to be firefighters and policemen when they grow up, but it’s never gone away for Josh. It’s just a passion that he’s had for a long time.

Amy Klein on her son, Josh Potrawski

Amy, 47, works as a nurse in neonatal intensive care at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. Josh has a brother, Michael, 20, and sister, Taylor, 16. Their father, Michael Powtraski, lives in Tennessee.

During Josh’s three years in the cadet program, he became chief of programming and helped plan open houses and kids activities.

“I was allowed to respond to all structure fires, whether it was 3:30 in the morning or whatever,” he said. “The only time I didn’t go was when I was in school.”

For the past two years, Josh also has worked at New Baden Market IGA.

This fall, he will start taking emergency medical technician classes at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville with the goal of becoming a licensed paramedic in three years. In January, he plans to enroll in the fire science program.

“I just love helping the community or anyone I can,” he said. “If I can risk my life for somebody else, I’m willing to do that.”

Matt is thrilled when young people show an interest in joining the New Baden fire department. At this time, nine of his 17 firefighters are eligible for retirement.

Flanagan is one of them. He was 18 when he was sworn in, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

“We’re a volunteer department,” he said, noting firefighters just get paid when they go out on calls. “We’re always looking for young people to come in and learn everything, work their way up into officer positions and take the reins when they get older.”

Teri Maddox: 618-239-2473, @BNDwriter

Josh’s favorites:

  • Movie: “Backdraft”
  • TV show: “Chicago Fire”
  • Music: Country
  • App: Facebook
  • Hobbies: Fishing, spending time with his girlfriend and listening to scanner traffic
  • Food: Italian
  • Restaurant: Olive Garden
  • Sport: Baseball
  • Team: St. Louis Cardinals
  • Color: Fire engine red
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