Selbyville Volunteer Fire Company’s Bob Odom is not your typical firefighter… Oden hasn’t actually been able to go to fire school, because his calling as a pastor — currently working at Peninsula Community Church — keeps him busy, but he has still sought to help his community.
“My wife would tell you I’ve always been an ‘ambulance-chaser,’” Odom said with a laugh. “Wherever I’ve been, even though I hadn’t been a part of the fire department, I’d gotten to know a lot of the firefighters. When I hear the fire siren go off, I’m usually in my car, investigating… I have a scanner at home, listening to it. This was the first time my schedule and everything had allowed me to join.”
Odom said he has always had an interest in joining the fire service and, through the encouragement of friends in the service, joined the fire company in March of 2015. Now, he drives the department’s ambulance on Monday and Tuesday nights, and also helps as a Delaware fire police officer.
“Because I’m not able to train on the fire side, to fight fires, this allows me to respond and feel like I’m contributing if I’m not on the ambulance.”
Described as an “enigma” by SVFC Chief Matt Sliwa, Odom said he was determined to be of service to the fire company, no matter what.
“Most people say they want to help but say they don’t have time for this,” said Sliwa. “Bob said, ‘Here are the parameters of what I can do. Where do I fit?’
“‘We could really use you on the ambulance.’ ‘We always need help on scene with accountability, taking notes, an extra set of hands getting things off the truck…’ And he said, ‘OK, I can do that.’ He jumped in with both feet. He’s made a difference... I’m glad he came to us. He could’ve been in a couple of jurisdictions, given where he lives, but he came to us; and I’m really glad he did.”
As a man who serves as pastor and as an active member in emergency services, Odom said the two fields are very similar.
“My thing has always been caring for people, and that’s why driving the ambulance has been an extension of what I do as a pastor — caring for people and hoping for their best,” he said. “I love the comradery of the fellow firefighters and being a part of the community.”
“He’s a spiritual leader for the guys — not necessarily one type denomination or religion — he’s the guy who’s looking out for everyone and their mental thought processes,” added Sliwa. “‘Is everybody doing OK? How’s everyone doing?’ ‘That was a tough call, does anybody need to talk? I’m here.’ I’ve sat down with him a couple of times as friends, and we talk about stuff and he gives me a different perspective on things. As a chief, that’s nice to have and hear.”
Prior to joining the SVFC, Odom volunteered as the chaplain for the Sussex County paramedics.
“There was a fellow attending our church who was a paramedic. I had told him about my love for that whole system. He had invited me out to do some ride-alongs with the paramedics, and I got to know several of the paramedics through that and how they would be launching the chaplain ministry, and they asked me to join,” recalled Odom.
Odom also serves on the Sussex County Critical Incident Stress Management Team, which helps those in the service mitigate mental-health issues following a traumatic event.
“I try as I can to stop by the station and just say hello and ride around as needed. If I hear about somebody who’s had a tough call, I try to make myself available for them and care for them.”
“You see a child in a car accident, and you see your kids in your mind. It’s tough to see, tough to deal with, tough to handle,” said Sliwa. “The fact that Bob takes that job very seriously and he’s actively engaging people in conversation, paying attention to their well-being and asking — I guarantee you, if there’s an issue in my station, he’s going to catch it and bring it to my attention before I ever notice it. He’s like my frontline guy watching out for us, which, in turn, is watching out for our families.”
Born and raised in Mobile, Ala., Odom lived in New York and Virginia prior to coming to Delaware.
“Being a pastor, the church here needed a new pastor. They had talked about me coming up, and that’s how we got here,” said Odom. “I had passed through Delaware. I had not really been here. To be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot about Delaware, but when we came up to interview, we fell in love with the people. And, of course, we’ve fallen in love with the area.”
Having great pastoral role models as a teenager, Odom said, he felt the church is where he was being called to by God.
“I had a grandmother who prayed for me. She always wanted to see you in the ministry. I’m sure a lot of it was her prayer and her faith that helped direct and guide me,” he added.
For his work and dedication to the department, Sliwa nominated Odom for the 2018 Joshua M. Freeman Valor Award. It was the first year Odom received a nomination. This month, he also received his first Phoenix Award as a member of the EMS crew that saved the life of a local man who had gone into sudden cardiac arrest.
“It’s volunteer, but it doesn’t change what we see, it doesn’t change what we do,” Sliwa added of the stresses involved in emergency services. “He’s a great friend, too. He’s someone I feel confident in talking to and confiding in. He’s just a very easy conversationalist, outside of being an Alabama football fan — we’ll let that slide. Everything else is pretty spot-on.”
Sliwa said he was disappointed Odom didn’t receive the overall Valor Award this year, because what he does for the department — while it might not be a noticeable showing of heroism — is, in fact, extraordinarily heroic.
“What he does and offers to the fire service is huge. You’re never going to see him carrying someone out of a burning building; you’re never going to see him with the huge Jaws of Life in his hands, cutting a car apart. He’s the one who’s looking out for us, and that’s really important, too.”