Andrew Peters, left, has volunteered with the Walnut Hill Fire Department for more than 20 years. He is mentoring fellow Escambia River Electric Cooperative water department employee Austin Snyder.
Photo by Sabrina Owens
Volunteer firefighters provide critical emergency response
When Carl Seley was a teenager growing up in Ebro, Florida, he decided to join the Ebro Volunteer Fire Department. Volunteering “seemed like the thing to do,” says Carl, now 46.
“Ebro is a real small community—especially back then,” says Carl. “Everybody was related and close-related.”
Carl reckons Ebro’s population hovered around 300 people 30 years ago.
He says the town was so close-knit, “You could listen to a car coming down the road and know who was coming.”
Folks who live in small towns help each other out—both because they want to and because they have to. Small communities can be in isolated areas, adding to the need for people to help each other.
Looking to the example set by family members and friends, it seemed clear to Carl that he should step up and shoulder some community responsibility.
Carl studied, trained and eventually became certified as a firefighter I—the first level of firefighting certification. It is required of someone who wants to be a fully trained volunteer firefighter, Carl says.
There have been gaps in his service—times when he left for military service, for example—but Carl has been helping the fire department in one capacity or another since age 15.
Volunteer firefighters do more than respond to fires, Carl explains. They are first responders on the scene of car accidents and other emergencies.
Their presence is critical when paid emergency personnel are located long driving distances away.
In a vehicle accident, he says, every minute can mean the difference between a life saved or a life lost.
In a structure fire, every minute can mean the difference between a building razed by fire or a building saved from destruction.
Who Will Respond?
Volunteer fire departments in rural communities must rely on neighboring community departments, as well as their own members, to be successful.
Attending calls that happen during traditional working hours can be difficult due to a lack of available manpower, Carl says.
Members of volunteer fire departments cannot always leave their paid employment to respond to an emergency call, or they may work too far from their hometown to be able to respond in a timely manner.
Northwest of Ebro, Andrew Peters is captain of the Walnut Hill Fire Department.
Like Ebro, Walnut Hill is a small town.
The Walnut Hill department provides coverage for about 5,000 homes and relies on volunteers to serve the area as firefighters and first responders, Andrew says.
Andrew works in the water department at Escambia River Electric Cooperative. He says the co-op encourages him to leave work when a call goes out for the volunteer responders.
That permission is a saving grace for the community, he says.
“I’m a water guy,” Andrew quips, noting he attends as many calls as he can.
All joking aside, Andrew says he is proud of his employer.
“EREC is a co-op, and they are so good about helping communities and schools,” he says. “They serve the people.”
Like Ebro, the Walnut Hill Fire Department must call on neighboring fire departments to help out if manpower is thin. Fire departments are like extended families, Andrew says, noting that when a call goes out for help, firefighters respond.
Andrew became a firefighter because he was inspired by someone already on the fire department.
“I think what got me going was the fire chief came and spoke to our church group,” Andrew says. “I thought I’d like to help.”
The message Andrew took away from the meeting was that without volunteers, communities suffer.
In 1997, Andrew became certified as a firefighter 1.
After serving more than 20 years on the department, he says being of service in the community—serving something greater than himself—is a draw.
“I enjoy helping people, and it’s something to be part of the team,” he says.
A Life of Service
Volunteering as a firefighter means a life of service. Emergencies can happen at any time and any day.
Both Carl and Andrew have left their beds in the middle of the night on numerous occasions.
“We can have nighttime calls, lunchtime calls, calls during church,” Andrew says. “It can be inconvenient, but there’s something about it when you’re dedicated to it.”
Volunteers don’t have to go on every call, Andrew says. Through the years, he says he has learned there is a fine balance of knowing when he should respond and when an emergency has enough response already and he can let someone else take the call.
Balancing home life with work and the life of a firefighter is important, says Andrew, who has been married 37 years.
“It is a sacrifice, especially to a family man,” he says. “It can affect family life.”
He says he has been careful about how his service affects the family, and that he tries to give his wife, Carolyn, and their four grown children the time they need from him.
“The reason I realize I have been successful is that I don’t always want to go out and she will say, ‘The poor people are hurting, you should go,’” Andrew says, crediting his wife.
Carl says a firefighter learns that some emergencies will leave a lasting imprint.
One incident he remembers involved a fatality caused by a drunk driver.
“That hangs with you forever when you see that,” he says.
In 2010, Carl was called to a scene and discovered he had lost one of his sister-in-laws.
Talking about that incident is still hard.
“There are times when you just have to suck it up and do your duty,” he says. “When you get home, you hold your young ’uns.”
The Next Generation
Carl’s son, Lucas, 19, is also a firefighter. He and a cousin are taking classes to earn their firefighter II credentials, which means they can become career firemen.
“It is a big family thing,” Carl says, noting that of the 13 volunteers with the Ebro Fire Department, only two are not related by blood or through marriage. “You’ll find that most of the rural fire departments in the area are like that.”
Lucas says he has always wanted to serve people in whatever profession he chose. He considered joining the Army before contemplating a firefighting career.
“I’m a daredevil,” he says, adding that he knew he wanted a career with varied daily activity.
He says he had always seen his dad going on fire calls, but never thought of firefighting as a paid career.
“He inspired me,” Lucas says of Carl.
Lucas has already completed firefighter I training. His series of firefighter II courses have taken about seven months and cost about $2,000.
There is a big difference between being a volunteer and a professional firefighter, Carl says.
“He’ll see in six months what I’ve seen in a lifetime,” Carl explains. “I’m just as proud of him as I can be. He’s got a bright future ahead of him in the fire service.”
Carl says he sometimes wondered if his experiences would scare Lucas away from firefighting.
“With me being in the service, he’s seen me getting up in the middle of the night, and sometimes he’s seen me come home, knowing we’ve had a bad wreck, but he still wants to do it,” Carl says.
Leading By Example
Andrew is also mentoring a member of the next generation of firefighters in the Walnut Hill Volunteer Fire Department. He helped recruit Austin Snyder, 23, who works with him at EREC.
“He’s the one that convinced me to come join,” Austin says. “I didn’t really think about it.”
With Andrew’s encouragement, “I felt good about it,” Austin says.
Volunteer fire departments always need more help, Andrew explains, noting the lifestyle is not for everyone.
“Usually, it seems like there’s a type of quality of person that gets inspired by it,” Andrew says.
The ones who come to the fire department ready to serve the community “and have that perspective come and stay and get dedicated to it,” he explains.
Austin also volunteers at the nearby Atmore, Alabama, volunteer fire department, where his father-in-law is chief.
“I’ve always wanted to be a police officer,” Austin says. “Maybe I saw myself doing it (firefighting), but Andrew really helped me out. I was really shy about going. I went and I really enjoyed it.”
Austin says both fire departments feel like family—something he appreciates.
“I haven’t been there long, but it doesn’t take long to feel like that,” he adds.
Austin is working to achieve his firefighter I certification. Because he has not earned it yet, he is not allowed into a burning building. He will be when he completes his certification.
In the meantime, he does have his first responder certification, which means he can assist with medical emergencies during calls.
“I can’t wait to get certified,” Austin says. “That’s what we’re working on now. It’s a 240-hour course.”
These days, both Carl and Andrew admit they are working toward a slower pace in their roles as volunteer firefighters.
Both men know they are needed as mentors to the next generation so their fire districts can continue to thrive.
They say it is a gradual passing of the torch.
“I got my replacement,” Carl quips.
There is pride and fondness in his voice when he speaks of Lucas’ choice to become a professional firefighter.
“I’ve gotten older and slower—I know that—a little more cautious, too,” Andrew says. “I’ve noticed that when you’re young, you’re the go-ahead guy. I’m 57 now and learning to work with a younger generation.
“I grew up being a worker and still like to work, but I’m learning the skill of backing off and letting someone else do the job. It’s special to watch them.”