Life on the line - Elizabethton, Carter County 'brotherhood' of emergency personnel give little thought to personal peril

By Bob Robinson and Stephen Glass
STAR STAFF

   The heroic efforts of Elizabethton and Carter County's elite emergency services and law enforcement personnel often are taken for granted. They risk their lives to save and protect others from harm, though most of us take little time to consider how much of a service they do for our communities -- until we need them, that is.
   Their heroism is exemplified every day when they enter a fiery building to locate an unconscious person, struggle to extricate a trapped motorist from a wrecked vehicle, dive into fast-moving current to keep someone from drowning, or face down armed suspects to thwart a robbery or stop an assault.
   Though they don't like to brag about what they do, taking the dangers of their jobs as a matter of course, Elizabethton and Carter County emergency services professionals and law enforcement officers are a dedicated group of men and women who are trained to face peril daily.
   Most say the dangers of their job brings them closer together. Like the New York firefighters who refer to their comrades, the living and fallen, as "brother," most firefighters, rescue workers, and law enforcement officers here in Carter County think of each other as family.

   Jim Burrough
   "The work is taxing. Emergency services personnel face different challenges every day. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center demonstrate how quickly life can end for victims and their rescuers," said Jim Burrough, director of Elizabethton/Carter County Emergency Management.
   What prompted Burrough to join the brotherhood of emergency services personnel?
   "I started in the Carter County Rescue Squad in 1971 and was active for 10 years. My predecessor, Denton Samson, invited me to attend a disaster training class offered by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) in Emittsburg, Md. After taking that class, I became interested in emergency management," Burrough said.
   Burrough has been director of Elizabethton/Carter County Emergency Management for nine years.
   It is necessary for emergency services personnel to be trained and for them to follow that training, Burrough said, adding, "Anti-terrorism has been added to the training manual. First responders to an emergency have to be on guard against secondary explosions purposefully set to injure or kill them."
   The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency pays all training expenses for emergency services personnel in Elizabethton and Carter County, according to Burrough.
   "I would like to commend all emergency services personnel for the job they do and thank employers for allowing them to do their job," he said.
   John White, director of TEMA, should also be commended for his support, Burrough added.
  
   Conley Jones, West Carter County Volunteer Fire Department

   West Carter County Volunteer Fire Department Chief Conley Jones also says that he believes most firefighters brave the dangers of the job simply because they want to help people. They stay because it's "habit forming."
   "We've had a few guys who quit for a while, but they almost always come back. These guys are all dedicated."
   And Jones knows plenty about dedication to the task.
   "I guess it's a stressful job, even though you don't think about it. You don't have time to think about how fast your heart is beating ... but I had a heart attack one time when I was up on the ladder fighting a house fire. I just got down and went and sat on an old lawnmower out there and asked one of the boys for an oxygen mask. I guess it was a good thing those rescue squad guys were around."
   Yet even after his heart attack and the subsequent angioplasty surgery during which his heart stopped beating, Jones, at age 69, continues to fight fires. Why?
   "Its a good feeling, even if all you save for somebody is a few old family photographs ... or if you get somebody's pet out of the house ... it's worth it. We just take pride in what we do. We like to get there fast and get the fire put out. That's what we do."
   Like Isaacs, Jones has family -- two sons, a daughter-in-law, and a nephew -- in the business. But he says that the whole fire department is like family, not just to each other, but to the community.
   "When these guys see a need, they try to do something about it," said Jones. "One of our guys lost a patient on a heart attack call that we happened to get to before the rescue squad. He thought that if we would have had a defibrillator of our own, maybe he could have saved her. But those things cost a lot of money -- over $3000. So he put a sign up on the wall and donated the first $100. The rest of the guys chipped in what they could and we got a lot of support from churches around, and we got ourselves one. That's the kind of people we've got.
   "Yeah, I think it is like a brotherhood ... like you saw with those guys in New York ... It is like family."
  
   Rick Riddle, Elizabethton Fire Department

   Rick Riddle has been a firefighter with the City of Elizabethton for seven years. Before that, he was a member of the Watauga Volunteer Fire Department almost nine years. He has also been a member of the Carter County Rescue Squad almost 12 years.
   Why does he put his life on the line for others he does not know? "I've always been interested in helping others in need, whether it is a fire, car accident or swift water rescue," said Riddle.
   Training in swift water rescue for city firefighters begins in October.
   "I have kept up with what has been going on in New York and at the Pentagon. I feel for emergency services personnel who have been involved in a lifesaving capacity. It was a real tragedy that so many people perished. It is heartbreaking to know that this happened in a peace-loving, free country such as ours. It was an unforgivable act. I pray that nothing like that will happen locally," Riddle said.
  
   Dale Smalling, Watauga Volunteer Fire Department Chief

   The Watauga Ruritan Club established the Watauga Volunteer Fire Department years ago. Dale Smalling was elected chief in 1971, a position he held until 1991 when he retired. However, retirement was short-lived. Smalling returned as chief four years ago.
   Firefighters face trauma in the job every day. At a recent structure fire in Watauga, two young boys were outside a burning residence, pleading to firefighters to "save our daddy," who was still inside the burning structure. "We had him out within three minutes but could not resuscitate him," Smalling said.
   The Watauga Volunteer Fire Department is recruiting new members. Candidates must be in good health, have a clean criminal record, possess a Tennessee driver's license, complete training and one year probation. Junior firefighters must be at least 16 years old and senior firefighters at least 18, Smalling said.
   "Firefighters are like God -- they are not recognized until they are needed," according to Chief Smalling.
   "We extend our deepest sympathy to the firefighters and to their families in New York. It was such a devastating and emotional thing to see and to participate in the rescue and recovery operation. I have a great admiration for the emergency services personnel in New York," he said.
   "It takes a special person to be a firefighter. When the job needs to be done and when called, we respond."
  
   David Nichols, Carter County EMS and Stoney Creek Volunteer Fire Department
  
David Nichols works for both the Carter County Rescue Squad and the Stoney Creek Volunteer Fire Department. Nichols also says that fire and rescue workers are his family.
   "Most people who work ordinary jobs probably don't understand it," said Nichols. "When you're working in an office, there's probably not much that you're going to do that could result in the death of the guy standing next to you. It's not that way with fire and rescue workers."
   Nichols said that his primary job for the Stoney Creek Fire Department is to ensure that firefighters have a steady supply of water.
   "I know it probably doesn't sound like a big deal, but bad things could happen if those guys inside that burning house run out of water."
   Nichols said that he thinks of the men he works with as brothers.
   "You'd have to come up to the Stoney Creek Fire Department to have any idea what I'm talking about. If there ever was a family ... these guys are a family. We barbecue together, we play cards together, we go out to dinner together, our kids play together. We're close -- all of us.
   "And the guys at the Rescue Squad are pretty much the same way. You have to be. If you're on a heart attack call and you're getting ready to defibrillate somebody, you better be thinking about the guy standing next to you. You better watch out for him, or somebody is going to get electrocuted. Like I said, you don't have that kind of experience working in an office."
   Nichols said he is certain that the firefighters and rescue workers in New York are experiencing incredible grief after losing so many of their "brothers" on Sept. 11.
   "We lost one of our friends at the fire department here a few years ago. His name was Wayne Williams. He didn't die on the job. He had a motorcycle wreck, but it nearly killed us all. I can't imagine what it would be like to lose 300 men in one day."
  
   Jason Shaw, Elizabethton Police Department
  
Jason Shaw, a member of the Elizabethton Police Department, for more than two years, always wanted to be a policeman and hopes to make a career out of it.
   He also has been a member of the Stoney Creek Volunteer Fire Department for seven years.
   "I have always enjoyed meeting and serving people. Like everyone else, I was shocked to watch the terrorist attacks on New York City and The Pentagon. I send my deepest sympathies to the families of police, fire and rescue personnel who lost loved ones and others who were injured in the tragedies," Shaw said.
   Eight weeks of training at the Police Academy at Walters State Community College, Greeneville campus, plus three months of field training, provided the necessary job preparation, he added.
   At the Stoney Creek Volunteer Fire Department, prospective firefighters must complete training in medical and hazardous materials, incident and command and complete a six-month probationary period.
  
   Terry Proffitt, Roan Mountain Volunteer Fire Department

   Chief Terry Proffitt of the Roan Mountain Volunteer Fire Department has been a firefighter 17 years. He has 28 firefighters now under his command.
   What attracted him to the job? "I've always wanted to help residents of the community," Chief Proffitt said.
   Firefighters must be willing to respond to emergencies late at night or early in the morning, even if snow is on the ground. "It takes a special person to be a firefighter," he added.
   Roan Mountain volunteer firemen cover a large mountainous area up to Avery and Mitchell Counties in North Carolina.
   There are 30 hours per year of in-house training. Firefighters also receive emergency management training at Northeast State Community College and sometimes receive additional training in North Carolina, Proffitt said.
   "I would like to have joined the emergency services personnel in New York. In the back of your mind, there is a thought of getting killed on the job. That's a chance you take," he added.
  
   Todd Isaacs, Hampton Volunteer Fire Department
   Like most firefighters, Hampton Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Todd Isaacs is aware of the dangers of the job, but says that the thought of personal injury or losing his own life is not something he often takes time to consider.
   "No, you don't really think about the danger. You don't have time to think about it," said Isaacs. "When you get on the truck, you get so much adrenaline going ... you get used to it. You follow your training, and that's what keeps you from getting hurt."
   But Isaacs admits that there is more to the job than just training. It takes a sort of instinct, too.
   "When you go into a burning building, it's not like on television or in the movies. You go in on your hands and knees because the heat up high is enough to roast you. There's nothing but black smoke. You can't see your hand in front of your face, so you have to feel along the walls. You just have to feel where the fire is; you almost have to do it by instinct, just feeling for the hot spots ... Most of the time you're within 5 to 10 feet of the fire."
   For Isaacs, fighting fire is a family affair.
   "My mother and father both worked for the fire department," said Isaacs. "I have two brothers that are firefighters. And the guys you fight fires with ... they're family, too.
   "I think we all do it for the same reason. We just want to help people."
  
   Lt. Mike Fraley, Carter County Sheriff's Department
   Lt. Mike Fraley of the Carter County Sheriff's Department says that law enforcement officers share the same sort of bond that firefighters and rescue workers do. Fraley, like Nichols, believes that life-and-death situations are what make those bonds so strong.
   "Yes, I think we're like family," Fraley said. "I think it has a lot to do with the danger of the job. There's an element of danger in everything a law officer does -- even if he's just performing a routine traffic stop."
   Perhaps Fraley senses this more than most. When he responded to a call at Brown's Supermarket in Hampton one day several years ago, he says he had no idea of the seriousness of the threat that awaited him.
   "I had never been shot at before," said Fraley. "But after I pulled into the parking lot and got out of the car, before I could get the door shut, the suspect shot me. I was hit once in the arm, once in the stomach, and twice in the chest. I never had a chance to unholster my weapon. That's how fast it happened. The suspect later shot another law officer -- Constable Roger Watt."
   Fraley was down for six months after the shooting, but once he was on his feet again, he returned to his job with the sheriff's department. Even when he returned to the department, though, his first thought was not for himself.
   "I wasn't really afraid for myself when I came back," said Fraley. "I just wanted to be very sure that [the shooting] hadn't changed me too much. I wanted to be sure that I could still treat people the way they should be treated. I wanted to make sure that I wasn't going to start overreacting to things. I wanted to do my job and do it right. If I couldn't do that, I would have just gone home because I would have been putting myself and the public and the guys I work with in danger. We're here to protect people. I had to know I could still do that."
   Fraley says that his family, his "brothers" in the department, and his real father and brother -- Capt. Bill Fraley and Sgt. Brian Fraley -- both of whom work for Elizabethton Police Department, helped him through his recovery and his return to the patrol.
   "I knew that they were all behind me. It made things a lot easier."
  
   Sheriff John Henson, Carter County Sheriff's Department
  
Sheriff John Henson, who has spent 31 years with the Carter County Sheriff's Department, also said he feels a sense of brotherhood when he thinks about the whole of the law enforcement community.
   "All law enforcement officers are brothers. Yes sir, all law enforcement is like family. I feel for those guys in New York the same as I would if something like that happened here. They've lost a lot of people. It gets to us, so you know it's tearing them up inside."
   Henson said that he would do anything for his deputies and to "protect and serve" the public.
   On the day that Fraley was shot, Henson had to use deadly force to stop the suspect.
   "Son, that's something you never want to have to do -- ever. But there was two officers down, and I knew that if I didn't stop this guy, he was going to hurt or kill somebody else. I was hurt and frustrated and scared and mad. That's just the last thing you ever want to do, but you only have a second to decide, and he had already fired two shots at me.
   "I remember being really mad at the guy after it was over with. I wanted to know why he had put me in a situation where I had to do something like that. But he had put law enforcement officers in danger. He had put the public in danger. I did what I had to do. It's what I'm trained to do in a situation like that."
   Henson says that when he heard the toll of police officers and rescue workers lost in New York, he felt lucky that he has never lost an officer in the line of duty.
   "We've come close, really close, and it's a miracle that we haven't lost anybody. It makes you thankful."
   Men like Henson, Fraley, Nichols, Jones, Isaacs, Proffit, Shaw, Riddle, Burrough, and Smalling represent what is arguably the finest in human nature -- the willingness to step into harm's way to protect not just another human being, but an absolute stranger.
   Perhaps David Nichols said it best when asked what he thought the firefighters and rescue workers in New York were thinking as they rushed up the stairwells of the burning Trade Center towers.
   Nichols said flatly: "They weren't thinking about anything but doing their jobs. They were there to get those people out."