Sacrifice: Chief Shouse talks about firefighting

By Jennifer Lassiter
star staff

  A loud shrill from the 9-1-1 dispatcher wakes them up, and without hesitation they bravely leave their families quietly tucked in bed. Underneath 60 pounds of turnout gear, there's a person unsure of their safe return home. A firefighter's job is without a doubt risky business.
  Chief Michael Shouse of the Elizabethton Police Department knows the high-pitched sound of an emergency all too well. He began his career as a lifesaver 28 years ago as a paid on-call volunteer, a program which no longer exists. Back then Shouse said they were paid the "big bucks" ... $4 a call.
  Shouse's interest in fighting fires was sparked in high school, and he pursed his on-the-job training further until he began full-time work on June 18, 1977.
  "I worked my way from firefighter to engineer," said Shouse. "In 1997, I was appointed to the 'chief' position."
  The firefighting business has evolved in a lot of ways since then, along with the rest of the world. "It's a lot different now; just to start, firefighters have to complete 480 hours of training," said Shouse.
  Today, firefighters are taught how to handle hazardous material, bio-terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and meth labs. Firefighters are also state certified and, according to Shouse, the good 'ole boy image has faded.
  The department recently installed a diesel exhaust removal system in all three of the cities fire departments. They are designed to keep firefighters from breathing the toxic fumes from the trucks while in the building.
  "It's a good deal; it provides a safer and cleaner atmosphere for them to work at," said Shouse. The yellow hoses attach to the exhaust, which is then pulled by a fan system to the outside of the building. The system is set up to automatically detach from the trucks when they pull out of the building.
  A wall lined with bronze 3-D silhouette images hangs on Shouse's office wall, along with a poem that tells the reader that firefighting is not just about being a hero. One wall is dedicated to the Town of Elizabethton, a simple thank you for the support during the North American Corporation fire of Feb. 2000.
  "Talk about camaraderie," said Shouse " We had over 78 firefighters working at different times on the scene and we did what we set out to do; we kept the fire off the chemical and no one died."
  Shouse considers any job done without injuries to be a successful one. "As a firefighter, if nobody gets hurt or nobody dies, it's an outstanding call," he said.
  On a daily basis, the life of a firefighter is unclear and that kind of mental stress will work on you, said Shouse. "At last count we've had 18 fire deaths," said Shouse.
  Gov. Phil Bredesen declared October as Fire Safety Month to combat the state's high rate of fire deaths. "Each year far too many Tennesseeans perish as a result of fires," said Bredeson in a press release. "We are committed to working with our local fire departments, community leaders, businesses and educators to raise public awareness about fire prevention and to save lives."
  In 2001, Tennessee fire departments reported 11,935 fires, and the leading cause of fatal residential fires were arson (9 percent), electrical (8.1 percent) and heating equipment (7.2 percent).
  According to Shouse, people can take steps to save their homes and families each year which are relatively simple. Shouse suggests keeping leaves away from the house as well as dead grass. "There is a no burn policy within the city limits, but if leaves are left on the curb the city will pick them up," he said.
  Roofs are also real important in preventing a fire. Keeping leaves off the roof, especially if you have a chimney, can eliminate a fire hazard. "If you have a chimney you should have it cleaned twice a year; a good reminder is the time change," he said.
  Smoke detectors should be checked once a month, and furniture should be moved away from wall heaters, he suggests.
  "In all fire deaths, I've yet to see one with a working smoke alarm," said Shouse. "I like to steal an American Express saying: 'Don't stay home without it'."
  Shouse also suggested having a carbon monoxide detector if you're heating with natural gas, wood or propane.
  "Fire doesn't discriminate," said Shouse. "There are a lot of sacrifices for all emergency departments, paid or unpaid."