Parish volunteer firefighters give back to community

Published 1:03 am Sunday, June 13, 2010

VIDALIA — Whether a discarded cigarette lights a field, lightning strikes a building or old wood ignites at the hand of a criminal, a group of men sit ready to help.

But the Concordia Parish firefighters aren’t just volunteering, they are living a unique lifestyle.

Bill Bishop, a firefighter with Concordia Fire Protection District No. 2, has been with the program since 1975.

This is the first in a four-part series about area volunteer firefighters and their contributions to surrounding communities.

Back then, he was in the military, and after he got back from Vietnam and was stationed in South Carolina, he went to the local volunteer fire station and signed up.

He’s been with the Concordia department for the last couple of years, quitting his job at a prison in Jena to work as a part-time employee of the fire district and a part-time volunteer.

“I wanted to give back to the communities where I lived,” he said. “I got interested in the police, fire and rescue aspects, which is what I got my degree in college in, and I have been doing it ever since.”

Bishop is one of five part-time employees at the fire district. Fire Chief Nolen Cothren is the only full-time employee.

“We work a 35-hour week, from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily, and after 3:30 p.m. we are volunteers,” Bishop said.

In addition to the part-timers who man the central station daily, the fire district has 23 purely volunteer firefighters, Cothren said.

The chief said the men on payroll work at a rate of $10 an hour, and only one of the five part-time firefighters has a second job.

The district is funded by a 10-year, 6.94-mil tax that generates $479,000 yearly.

Along with the firefighter’s salaries, those funds are used to buy equipment and maintain eight facilities across the parish — the central station on Airport Road, one on Louisiana 568, one on the back side of Lake St. John on Louisiana 569, one on Louisiana 566 at Dunbarton, one on U.S. 84 west of Ferriday, one on U.S. 84 at Wildsville, one on Poole Road and one on Louisiana 15 near Deer Park.

Becoming a volunteer firefighter is fairly simple, Cothren said.

“Come out, fill out an application, we will run a background check and then after that you will be voted on by the membership,” he said. “We haven’t had anybody turned down that I know of yet.”

And once you’re a firefighter, there’s a lot to learn.

The district has training sessions taught by LSU twice a month on Thursdays, and training sessions every Monday night.

Once someone is geared up to go, they wait for the 911 operator to send out a page that there’s been an incident and they get to the nearest truck and they go.

In addition to fire calls, the fire district does vehicle extrications and medical first response, Cothren said.

“We may not do anything but sit there and talk to (the person in the accident) to keep them calm until the ambulance can get there, but we respond,” he said.

The volunteer firefighters also respond to hazardous materials incidents.

“Basically, we recognize the situation, notify the proper authorities and do a little to get ahead of it,” Cothren said.

From there, the Vidalia Fire Department comes in, because it has five hazardous materials technicians.

It’s common for the parish volunteer fire departments and the municipal departments to work together, Cothren said.

“If Ferriday or Vidalia have a fire, we will usually respond with them,” he said. “If it is a really bad fire, you need all the people you can get, so we assist them to give them more manpower.”

“We all work together to make sure everybody is covered.”

The Concordia volunteer fire department has a new engine at the central station that has extrication equipment, medical supplies — including a small rehabilitation setup for when someone becomes overwhelmed by a fire — and a large diameter hose.

They also have two 3,500 gallon vacuum tanker trucks and two 5,000 gallon tractor trailers that can respond when needed.

While the unincorporated parts of the parish don’t have fire hydrants, the fire district has the capability to hook into water systems in towns.

They also have a number of “dry hydrants” around the parish. Dry hydrants, which are essentially pipes sticking out of a natural body of water that allows the fire district’s trucks to pump water from the lake or pond, are more common in the rural southern end of the parish.

But while the employees and volunteers are always ready to gear up to fight major fires, that’s not always what happens when the call comes.

“A lot of times, especially around the lake, we will have a lot of fires, people see smoke and they will call it in and we get out there and all they are burning is limbs, brush piles,” Bishop said. “They don’t call it in and so we gear up and get out there, and we find out it’s nothing.”

Regardless of whether it’s a trash pile or a full-blown conflagration, it’s just a matter of waiting for the next call.

Monterey Fire Protection District No. 1 of Concordia

In the early 1970s, a group of concerned Monterey-area residents got together and formed a volunteer group for fighting fires. In 1975, that group morphed into Monterey Fire Protection District No. 1 of Concordia, more commonly known as the Monterey Fire Department.

But the district is not just based in Monterey, though their main station is there. The district has substations in Eva, New Era, Acme and Lismore.

It was funded by two taxes, one of which has expired, and District Fire Chief Jim Graves said he hopes to see replaced with a $75 flat fee for residents per plot of land.

Another tax — this one 10-mils — is still on the books to support the district.

Currently, the Monterey district is 100 percent volunteer with 20 firefighters.

The volunteers carry pagers, and when a fire call goes through the sheriff’s office, the firefighters receive a page and everyone who is able responds to the call.

“Everybody has full-time jobs and are working,” Graves said. “But so far we’ve been lucky that whenever somebody needed help we have been able to get somebody to them.”

Most of the calls the district gets are for farming equipment fires, but they are responding to an increasing number of vehicle accidents, Graves said.

“A lot of people are moving down there, and we need to grow along with it,” he said.

“We want to buy a new set of rescue tools and some lifting bags. We are about 45 minutes away from the nearest extrication equipment, so we want to have some of it down there right when we need it.”

A growing need

Having a fire protection district helps with insurance ratings, and Cothren said the ratings are based on such things as how much water the district can sustain through its equipment in a given amount of time.

But there are other things to consider, things that have hurt the district in recent years.

“The rating we had was class five, with 10 being the worst and one being the best,” he said. “They dropped our rating to six because of low participation from volunteers.”

Part of the problem is that many of the volunteers don’t know what being a volunteer firefighter entails until they respond to a few calls, he said.

“You hear people say this, but it’s true — it’s a lifestyle,” Cothren said. “It’s 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and that’s just part of it. You may be out, eating dinner with your family, and when that pager goes off you have to throw down and go.”

The Monterey fire district also needs volunteers, Graves said.

“Most of our folks are old and have had (firefighter training) for years,” he said.

The old folks, while loyal and well-trained, could be a weakness for the district.

“We are needing some younger blood, and so anybody who wants to come is welcome,” Graves said. “All they have to do is be willing to work hard for no pay.”