Area fire departments say Sept. 11 increased awareness

By Julie Fann
star staff

Usually, we notice them only when we hear the sirens and see those red trucks barreling down city streets in response to an emergency. We quickly thank God it wasn't us and then resume our daily routines.
   However, since the events of Sept. 11, area firefighters say citizens pay closer attention to their efforts, some offering words of appreciation.
   "I believe we're getting a lot more respect than we used to. People are telling us more that they appreciate us. I had several people stop me and thank me for what we do," said Conley Jones, fire chief at the West Carter Volunteer Fire Department.
   However, improved awareness of the risks surrounding firefighting hasn't resulted in an increase in applicants who are rushing to become career firefighters, according to Elizabethton Fire Department Chief Mike Shouse.
   "We had a lower year on applications than we've had in a long, long time. They might have seen that you have to be part crazy to be in this work. I think everybody was very shocked at what took place in our own country, and it made them more aware of the dangers of our job," Shouse said.
   After Sept. 11, Shouse said the threat of anthrax resulted in his department receiving numerous calls for approximately three months. Money was spent buying needed supplies and training firemen for bioterrorism.
   "We had to buy several decontamination and chemical suits and go through extra training. We're just expected to do a little bit of everything. One minute you're here in the station, and the next minute you don't know what you're into," Shouse said.
   Tightening security was a must after the terrorist attacks. EFD officials became more careful not to leave vehicles unattended, keeping them inside the building as much as possible. Evening lock-down measures also intensified.
   The EFD has 33 staff members, according to Shouse, who has been a firefighter for 25 years and EFD chief for the past five.
   Robert "Butch" Jones, chief at Central Volunteer Fire Department, said his men seem more sincere in their work and that citizens have been more responsive at this year's fish fries, given to raise money for the department.
   "We have more people telling us that they appreciate us. People take us for granted until something like this (Sept. 11) happens, and then they see. They don't realize that we go through hours and hours of training and don't get paid a bit," Jones said.
   Part of taking volunteer firefighters and departments for granted stems from not knowing what life would be like without them, according to Jones. "Next year is our 30th anniversary, and I've been in since '73," he said.
   Many volunteer firefighters are young and become involved because of the potential for excitement and an opportunity to be a part of something important. "They think it's something they can do and enjoy, and after Sept. 11 they realized it was something that could cause you to lose your life," said Jones.
   Although the public now has a heightened sensitivity regarding terrorism, Dale Smalling, chief at Watauga Volunteer Fire Department, said citizens still feel immune, especially now that time has passed.
   "People still have the attitude of 'it can't happen to us,' but we get all kinds of alerts from the FBI because we are in the realm of danger with nuclear facilities and lakes nearby. Although people are more concerned, I'm afraid that's going to die off," Smalling said.
   The Watauga VFD has received three new volunteers since Sept. 11 and has a total of 24 members. Smalling has been fire chief since the department's inception 25 years ago.
   The Stoney Creek VFD also has taken in several new volunteers over the past year, which Chief Jason Shaw attributes to the terrorist attacks. However, he said his department has received less calls since Sept. 11 but that appreciation seems to have increased.
   "I think it's because we have faced different dangers than in the past," he said.
   Forced to make changes due to possible dangers that exist in the area since Sept. 11, Ed McNeil, captain at the Hampton/Valley Forge VFD, said communication between FEMA, Homeland Defense and volunteer fire departments has improved.
   "We get warnings quite often through Homeland Defense. We've made changes because of Watauga Lake and Wilbur Dam, and some officials with TVA's fire brigade are coming next month to train us. It'll involve rescue inside the dam in case of collapse, how to handle bomb threats, things like that," McNeil said.
   At roadblocks this year, McNeil said citizens seemed to be contributing more money to help the community.
   "I believe they realize how important the fire department is to the community, and exactly what we do," he said.
   Officials at the Roan Mountain Volunteer Fire Department said they also have noticed an increase in monetary donations this year. The department has also added several new firefighters. Chief Terry Proffitt is hoping to purchase a new thermal imaging camera when grant money arrives.
   "It's a camera that allows you to go into dark places that may be smoke filled and find victims. The camera has a device that senses body temperature and locates victims," Proffitt said.
   Eddie Clawson, who has been chief of the Elk Mills/Poga Volunteer Fire Department since 1990, said although the community has an increased awareness, volunteer fire departments still struggle.
   Elk Mills has received four new volunteers since Sept. 11, bringing the total membership to 35. Clawson said his department bought two new trucks this year and, as a result, money is tight.
   "We paid $25,000 for two trucks. We're making payments of $22,000 a year for 16 years. We only receive $36,500 a year from the county, and we also pay $11,000 in insurance. We have to get help from the community, just to keep our doors open," Clawson said.
   Though the events of Sept. 11 opened the eyes of American citizens concerning their community, most volunteer fire departments still struggle to find needed funds.
   According to the Volunteer Fire Program, volunteer fire departments provide services that reach 43 percent of the population at an estimated value of $36 billion.