Johnny Bridges and Marc Perry remember the shoestring budget operations of 50 years ago, when local firefighters often opened their own wallets to put gas in the fire trucks.
“Most fire departments of the county, all the members would build their own trucks and take an old gasoline tanker truck and convert that to a fire truck,” said Bridges, 66, who became a volunteer firefighter at 16 years old and has long served as the chief of the Comer Volunteer Fire Department. “That was the kind of stuff we did many years ago. I can remember going door-to-door and asking people to help us buy the first clothes we had to wear. Now we wear these fancy suits and we have $3,000 to $4,000 dollars in them. Back then, it was just a rubber raincoat and rubber boots and a hat, and that’s all you got.”
Perry, long-time chief of the Danielsville department, who has logged over half a century with the department, remembers the days before the town fire department when Doris Baker, who served as the town’s do-it-all citizen — police chief, water superintendent, firefighter — would respond to fires, taking a 1962 fire truck to “squirt what water he had in the truck on it.”
But water from one truck won’t put out a full-fledged fire. Without organized fire services, homeowners are completely at the mercy of a brutal force of nature. And Perry remembers town residents deciding to do something about that fact, forming a volunteer department, gathering what they could to fight fire for town residents. This included the acquisition of an old gasoline tanker, a donated motor, an old pump and men of the town piecing it together.
“They put all that stuff together cause there just wasn’t any funding,” he said.
These same efforts went on at all 11 county departments — citizens stepping up to take care of their neighbors in an emergency.
FROM THEN TO NOW
It continues to this day.
Flash forward 50 years and Madison County firefighting has evolved, with better equipment and training and increased support from local government. But one thing has stayed the same: battling a blaze is not a paying job in this rural county. When you call 911 to report a fire, the people coming to put it out are doing so on their own dime. That’s not the case in urban areas, where firefighters are paid to wait at a station for a fire call. But in Madison County, firefighters at the 11 departments have to put food on the table in a different way. They have jobs. They have families and other obligations.
Perry said that middle-of-the-night call can be hard, but he said it must be answered.
“There are times when you’d like to just roll over and say ‘I’m going to get the next one,’” he said. “That’s not the way it works. You’re it. You got to get up and get it. You got to have enough people available at any particular time to get what needs to happen to happen.”
Perry said he tells the 16 Danielsville volunteers that they — not the equipment — are the fire department.
“It doesn’t matter about the trucks, the equipment or anything else,” he said. “The people are the fire department. The truck won’t do anything by itself. You have to have that commitment. There are times at 3 in the morning or right in the middle of something, you have to drop what you’re doing and go, because you are the fire department. At that moment, you’re it. You’re what the people are depending on. So you got to be pretty determined about it.”
Bridges agreed that the commitment to help has to be strong in a volunteer.
“You really need to be a community-minded person that you want to do something in the community,” said Bridges. “Sometimes it’s a thankless job. You go 24 hours a day, seven days a week and you never know when you’re going to get a call. You have to drop what you’re doing and just take off. And you have to be dedicated to be able to do that. Whatever you’re doing, cutting grass or working on something at home, or if you’re at a child’s ball game, or whatever it might be, you feel obligated to drop what you’re doing and go.”
FAR MORE THAN HOLDING A HOSE
And being a firefighter isn’t simply a matter of holding a hose and spraying it on the orange glow.
At station one of the Shiloh Volunteer Fire Department on Hwy. 174, Shiloh Chief Butch McDuffie stands in the department’s training room showing the wooden “jungle gym,” where volunteers practice maneuvering through a window or on a roof with all their heavy gear weighing them down. There’s a heavy “human body” that is made of rolled up firehose stuffed in green fatigues and held together by duct tape. This is used to help firefighters practice the right technique in moving an incapacitated person from a fire. There’s a miniature wooden house, like a doll house, but charred. There are doors that can be moved to demonstrate how fire responds to oxygen. That 1991 fireman’s film, “Backdraft,” references the dangers in how flames respond to oxygen. Firefighters must be educated in how fire behaves. Otherwise, they risk lives, and not just their own. Firefighters must also understand how to operate and maintain all of the equipment. They also have their common language, such as the A, B, C, D sides (A is the front, and it goes clockwise) of a structure, so they can know, for instance, that a fellow firefighter is at the B/C corner of a house.
And firefighters also have to be physically capable of doing some hard work.
“When you go into firefighting mode, it’s an extremely physically challenging and exhausting function,” said McDuffie. “You put on 40 lbs. of gear, 15 to 20 lbs. of turnout gear and then a 30 lb. pack on top of that. Then you drag a hose that’s full of water 150 feet, then you’re dragging it around inside a house. You’re in smoke and fire and breathing inside your breathing apparatus. It’s intense.”
Firefighters must also confront fear. Obviously, battling a blaze holds its dangers.
“Yes, everybody has to be scared,” said Bridges. “If you’re not scared, there’s something wrong with you.”
Bridges said he’s had occasions when he’s had a sudden, bad realization in a burning home.
“I’ve had situations where you’re upstairs in a house trying to get it put out and you’re crawling down a hall and all of the sudden there’s no floor in front of you,” he said. “You feel your hand didn’t touch something. You can reach out and you realize it’s collapsed. If you crawled a little further, you would have fallen in there. I’ve had that happen a few times.”
WHEN THE CALL COMES
When the fire call comes, volunteers are hurrying from wherever they are. And information gathering starts right away.
“We start that process from the time we leave the station,” said Bridges. “911 is trying to help us determine if there’s anybody there or not. They’re asking all those pertinent questions while they’re taking that call and relaying that information to us. We try to start figuring out what we have on the way there.”
Once there, firemen size up the scene. Does the fire look like it’s confined to one room? Is it the whole house? Is it venting out somewhere, blowing out a window or door?
“As a chief, you have to look at this as you’re showing up at 3 a.m. and hold back that 22-year-old-kid who wants to go in squirting water and say hold on, let’s get the big picture first,” said McDuffie. “Don’t get tunnel vision.”
Of course, the very first question: is anybody inside?
“If it’s undetermined, we immediately put someone in to make a quick search and crawl through the house as fast as they can while others are stretching hoses and getting those pulled in,” said Bridges. “It all happens so quick, the searching and putting the fire out.”
Bridges said that in the search, pets are sometimes found, carried out, given oxygen and given back to owner.
While firefighters respond to blazes at all hours, their work isn’t over when the fire is out.
“When we leave there, we wash every section of hose, we clean our air packs, we wash our clothes off, we refill all the bottles with air, repack new hose and get them ready for another call, because when we leave the station, we have to have it ready for the next call,” said Bridges. “That takes more time than the fire itself sometimes.”
Of course, sometimes the next call isn’t a fire, but a car wreck or gas leak. When bad weather hits, volunteer firefighters are out clearing trees off roadways.
“It’s not just fire,” said McDuffie. “It’s automobile crashes, extrications, people getting hurt on the river, any number of things, storms.”
And fire chiefs say that the paperwork in running a fire department is a job in itself, with all the record keeping, invoicing and bill paying.
VFD AND RESCUE
According to the latest county roster, there are a total of 172 firefighters in the 11 volunteer fire departments, which include Carlton, Colbert, Collins, Comer, Danielsville, Harrison, Hull, Ila, Neese-Sanford, Poca and Shiloh. And there are 33 volunteers for the county’s Rescue services.
Madison County Rescue has trucks stationed in Comer, Ila, Hull and two in Danielsville. One truck in Danielsville has swift-water gear to help in emergencies on water. Rescue is probably most know for its “Jaws of Life,” which cuts through metal and is used to help free people from wrecked vehicles. Most all of the Rescue members also serve with Madison County volunteer fire department.
Bridges said Rescue was born out of Civil Defense services.
“Rescue started in 1970 or 71 back when you used to have Civil Defense, the days when you were worried about nuclear war, people going through the training of teaching kids how to get under their desks in school,” he said. “Fallout shelters in buildings and basements. Civil Defense ran all that.”
Perry said Rescue involves “a lot of things that you have to be prepared for or try to be.”
“We do road rescue extrication, getting people out of wrecks,” he said. “We do lost persons, people lost or missing on the river, drowning, anything like that, road rescue. We went to GRP (Georgia Renewable Power) when they had a collapse. We lowered three people off the seventh floor. Anything out of the ordinary when someone is trapped or injured in a remote area, up high or down low, in the woods or whatever.”
Bridges said Rescue involves calls to “some really bad stuff.”
“That can be a difficult thing to deal with,” he said. “I got my EMT certification in 1980, because as I was running Rescue I felt like I wanted more medical training, so when I was inside the car and cutting people out or working with them, I could do more to help save them as well as cutting them out of the car.”
Bridges said he’s motivated by the thought that somebody has to help people in tough spots, like being trapped in a wrecked vehicle.
“It never really has bothered me, because I feel like I’m doing something trying to save somebody,” he said. “And I just feel like, somebody’s got to do it. But it’s like anything else, if you’re working with children out there and you’re trying to save their lives, it will make you think about it for a few days.”
Both Rescue and volunteer firefighting involve extensive training. Volunteers must meet the same standards of paid firefighters. And fire departments are measured by standards set by the Insurance Services Office (ISO), which issues a fire score rating (1 to 10, with 1 being the best, 10 the worst) to reflect how well a local fire department can protect its community.
“To get maximum credit from ISO, you’re supposed to have 240 hours a year of training and that would be 20 hours a month,” said Perry.
Paid firefighters can do that during their shifts. But volunteer departments must work to train everyone around other work schedules. McDuffie said the minimum basic certification for a firefighter involves 100 hours of training. An introductory training session is typically done two nights a week and every other Saturday for 12 weeks. And regular training continues after the initial certification.
“It’s taxing on people to try to meet all the training requirements and make the fire calls and have a job and make a living,” said Perry.
Fire preparedness isn’t just knowing the small details. It also involves bigger picture thinking. There are structures in the county that could provide real challenges for firefighters. And local chiefs look ahead and scope out how they will react if the call comes.
Bridges said property owners have been accommodating in helping with emergency response planning.
“We try to determine what are the hazardous materials and where they’re located, and if you’ve got flammable liquids stored somewhere,” he said. “We locate all the fire hydrants in the area, which ones we’d have to lay in from. And just look at the different hazards and how you would set up the trucks to fight a given area. We do that on all our big churches and that with the feedmill and GRP (Georgia Renewable Power), they’re just tall structures. And you got to figure out how to climb all these ladders up there.”
Firefighters will carry a hose up a ladder without water in it, then charge the line so they don’t have the weight of water until they’re up high.
“There’s a multitude of things you can train on,” said Bridges.
URBAN VS. RURAL FIREFIGHTING
That training is key when the emergency hits, in part, because rural departments don’t know who is going to make it to the fire call. Not every volunteer from every summoned department can make it to each call.
“I might be around and maybe two other Shiloh people, and then we might get two people from Danielsville and two from Harrison and we may or may not be well acquainted with these people,” said McDuffie. “We may or may not have trained with these people and on every different call, it’s probably going to be different people, too. And that’s why at 3 in the morning, I need to know that you, the guy from Poca, the guy from Harrison, the guy from Danielsville knows what the process is.”
In rural areas where well water is still the norm, there aren’t as many pressurized water sources as in cities. While Madison County municipalities and the county industrial authority have water and hydrants available in many places, the county is large, and there’s not always a hydrant nearby. So fire services in Madison County often require teamwork between multiple departments to bring water in a hurry to where it’s needed. The volunteers in different departments are not just affiliated with their specific community. They help out in other fire districts, too.
The Shiloh district, for instance, covers a 30 square-mile area. It doesn’t have many available hydrants in that space. So, the multi-department “water shuttle” is essential to its firefighting efforts. Six trucks from three departments may respond to a fire, but not all of them are throwing water on a blaze. There may be one or two trucks that go down a driveway, while the others lay a line down the driveway and run water to the truck fighting the fire.
“That’s the cool thing about the community we have around here,” said McDuffie. “If we get on a radio and say we need some manpower, send me another department, they’ll send another department. Once a tanker is in place, you can run three four or five hand lines full bore and just go with it and other trucks keep it topped off. And when they get empty, they go where they need to refill and the next one pulls into place. And you keep pumping water. So the water is continuous flow.”
Fire departments can’t fight fire without the needed equipment. So, departments do what they can to secure the best equipment possible. But that takes money. And fire trucks can run well into the six figures. Then, there’s the cost of turnout gear for volunteers to wear while fighting fires, the cost of maintaining a fire hall, and a variety of other expenses.
The 11 departments and Rescue in Madison County divide one mill of property taxes a year, which is generally over $700,000 annually.
Seventy percent of that revenue is split equally between the departments, then 10 percent goes to the county Rescue service. Ten percent is allocated by call volume, with the most active departments, such as Hull, getting the most. And the other 10 percent is determined by ISO rating, with departments with the lowest (best) rating getting a larger portion of the funds. County departments generally get by on a $50,000-to-$60,000 budget.
In 2019, Madison County voters renewed a six-year, one-cent sales tax for county improvements, which included $1,455,000 for the fire departments and Rescue. These funds also help the departments cover the substantial equipment costs.
But the debt costs on engines, tankers and ladder trucks is pretty steep, and volunteer departments are also helped out by community contributions, with people chipping in by participating in a mull, stew, hot dog, or cake sale, or simply cutting a check to the local department out of gratitude.
While firefighters don’t get a salary, there is one financial perk for putting in years of service — a pension. Volunteer firefighters can pay $25 a month into a pension fund, then draw full retirement after 25 years of active service. Some departments cover the cost of the monthly pension fund contribution for their volunteers. Once they qualify, full retirement is about $850-to-$900 a month now.
This can be particularly beneficial for local farmers, electricians, plumbers and other self-employed citizens who have no retirement plans through a work place.
County commission chairman Todd Higdon said a lot of citizens simply have no idea how much volunteer firefighters do for Madison County. Higdon said each of the county’s 11 departments and Rescue does an outstanding job, adding that “we may have one of the best county-structured volunteer fire departments in the state of Georgia.”
“Everyone wants to thank a police officer and a paramedic, but they also need thank the volunteer firemen,” he said. “They’re on their dime. They buy their own gas. They get out of bed at 2 in the morning to go assist our EMS service with lift assistance or a chest pain call and/or a structure fire, knowing they have to be at work at 7 a.m. The long hours these guys dedicate to nothing more than being a servant of the community. In a structure fire or even an automobile accident, they lay their lives on the line the same as a police officer and a paramedic or EMT. They’re doing it because they want to help. And we truly are shorthanded and we would love to have more of them.”
Higdon said the volunteer departments also save homeowners money.
“Your average homeowner may not know that without that fire department two miles down the road their homeowners’ insurance would be another $150 a year,” he said. “Because they didn’t dig into their homeowners’ insurance enough to know that the fire department they don’t donate to actually personally saves them money.”
As the county grows, county fire services could be strained by more households, more businesses, more calls, and a potential shortage in volunteers.
Local fire departments are looking for volunteers to help protect the Madison County community. And anyone interested in volunteering with a department can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A firefighter must be able to pass a physical, a background check, a firefighter agility test, and complete over 100 hours of training in the first 18 months of service to become a state registered volunteer firefighter. There are also opportunities to become support volunteer firefighters that require only 40 hours of training.
“You have to have your life together,” said McDuffie, whose wife, Sherry, is also a firefighter. “Your personal life has to be in order in order to give up your time to do these things. If you’re jumping through jobs and if you have three kids playing Little League and they’re in school and you’re wife’s working, too, it’s probably not going to work out right now unless you are really truly committed to making this part of your life, because it becomes a part of your life.”
Bridges said those who do make the big commitment realize that they are part of something like a family.
“It gets to be a family of fire department members and their spouses and their kids,” he said. “We become more like family in a fire department, especially when you got members who have been on for a good while. And when we get together, it’s a family affair.”
McDuffie praised his own volunteers, but he said it’s the same across the 11 departments. The people who volunteer their time and risk their own safety for no pay are a special breed.
“All the folks I deal with in the Madison County fire service, they’re the best people you’re going to find in this county,” he said. “They all have good intentions. They may not always agree with each other, and that’s OK, but they all are coming out to help their fellow citizens. If somebody dials 911, we show up.”