Lottie Eggen, a teacher at the Billings Head Start near North Park, guided her preschool class into an open room on Thursday morning where tables were stacked with brightly-colored winter coats.
Initially, the kids barely noticed the coats as they were more excited about the 10 other people in the room, whom the 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds immediately recognized as Billings firefighters.
Eggen told the kids that they were there for a surprise but, in light of the firefighters' presence, first asked if they remembered the phone number to call for safety.
"Five!" a little girl said confidently.
After Eggen gently reminded the little ones that the number is actually 9-1-1, she told them that the firefighters were there to give them all brand-new winter coats and the kids scrambled to the tables to pick one out.
Through a nationwide collaboration with a nonprofit called Operation Warm, members of the Billings Fire Department's Local 521 brought 270 new coats for the students at Head Start, which provides preschool classes to children living in poverty.
"For a lot of these kids, they only get hand-me-down coats or used ones that might not be in the best shape," said Tera DeBolt, Head Start's volunteer coordinator. "This guarantees that these kids are going to be warm. For a lot of them, this might be the first new coat they've ever had."
Operation Warm was established in 1998 and has provided about 1 million new coats to kids. It operates in 37 states and in 2012 the group presented at the International Association of Fire Fighters annual conference.
The IAFF decided to partner with Operation Warm and, with the help of the local firefighters' union, Billings represented its first efforts in Montana.
The Local 521, with the support of Billings Fire Department administration, used $1,080 from its Rich DuVal Benevolent Fund — often used by firefighters to help victims of house fires — to buy the coats. Operation Warm matched that amount.
"Firefighters are usually pretty quick to jump into anything that has to do with kids," said Billings fire Capt. Phil White, who helped organize the local effort. "It's just what we do."
As each class of kids filtered into the room, firefighters helped them find a coat that fit, in one of about a half-dozen colors.
They kids excitedly tried them on before lining up at a nearby table, where another firefighter would write each child's name in permanent marker on the inside tag of the coat.
Alyssia Bonner and Brooklynn Franco, both 4, quickly zipped up their new coats. Possibly a little camera-shy, the classmates used quick, one- or two-word sentences — "Green." "Purple." "It's pretty." — to say what they liked about their new coats.
But when Alyssia, her coat already zipped up to her chin and the hood already draped over her head, flipped up the bottom hem of the coat to show off its soft, thick inner lining, it might have been all she needed to say.
"If the firemen only knew what the warmth of these coats meant to these children and their families this winter," Eggen said.