Monday, January 23, 2006

Volunteer firemen - the front line of needed defense

When you live in small-town, rural Texas, you depend on your neighbors for many things, including personal protection. The police force often sleeps in a single bed and the local fire engine sits idly until awoken when needed.
The signal is the air siren that calls like the ancient Hebrew shofar during the High Holy Days. Night or day, when the shrill piercing voice of the fire department is activated, men and women from across the town drop papers, utensils and farm implements and race to the local fire house in order to determine the need for their services.
Within moments of hearing the emergency notification from a central dispatcher, lights are flashing, engines are revving and volunteers, not getting a dime and little more than a well-cooked barbecue dinner once a year, are speeding toward that moment’s disaster-in-wait.
As I said, these people don’t get paid for their efforts; it is done out of community service, pride and need. Today, it is your neighbor’s field, or house. Tomorrow it could be you. It is the way of life in small-town, rural Texas; those communities which actually outnumbered the large population centers of Texas. And those rural departments are responsible for more acreage than the far-better-financed units in places like Plano, Frisco, McKinney, etc.
When I owned a community newspaper in such a small-town, rural Texas town, I joined the local volunteer fire department out of sheer professional need. They needed publicity; I needed news. I was never in the proper shape to do things like battle house fires, which requires specific and intense training at places like the Texas A&M Fire School (one of the hidden gems in this state).
But I could stand on the back of a “fast attack” first responder truck that could pour an initial dressing of water on a highway grass fire, while waiting for the big boys to appear. Since my office was 30 yards from the fire house, I was able to get a first-hand report of fire activity.
Of course, back in the day, some of us were younger and better able to handle the rigors of the job. I’m sure today’s standards would preclude any further participation from specimens like me; which is just as well.
One day, the fast attack was dispatched to a major blaze in an open field where the smoke could be seen for miles. In all, we spent four hours fighting the fire until it was gone (or controlled enough to return home). We bounced across fields of broken mesquite stumps, ruts created by mud and cows grazing, and the rocky terrain known as the brush country. Yet it seemed like only a few minutes, going around in literal circles to keep ahead of the fire line and stop it from advancing to homes or other property.
I will never forget the smell; the aroma was like a hindquarter in a South Texas smokehouse, undergoing barbecuing treatment for a week. No amount of showering could erase the memory.
According to the Dallas Morning News, a survey conducted by the Texas Forest Service found that only one-third of Texas firefighters are paid. There are more than 30,000 active volunteer firefighters out there helping their neighbors. But, as seen recently, these are the warriors on the front lines in places most suburbanites have never heard about. All they see is a raging threat and ask for a successful conclusion.
These departments need more financial assistance from the folks in Austin and Washington. The public needs to recognize the contribution and dedication of these volunteers. Their duty is indescribable, their mission is undeniable.
Their equipment must be state-of-the art; their dedication is already state-of-the-heart.

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