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Volunteers the heart of local fire departments

It’s 2:30am and you are awakened by the rumbling of thunderstorms rolling through your neighborhood.

“Wow, that one was close,” you think to yourself, and the next thing you know your power goes out and your smoke alarm begins to chirp. Next thing you know you smell smoke. Is it your imagination, or is your worst nightmare coming true? You call 9-1-1 and hope help will be on the way soon. You wonder who will show up? Who gets called in the dark of night and in bad weather to respond to your worst day?

You might actually recognize the fire department members who show up. They are your neighbors, co-workers or part of your church congregation. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 88 percent of all fire departments in Alabama are all or mostly volunteer. Here in Randolph County, 100 percent of all fire departments are staffed by volunteers.

Don’t ever question the value of volunteers. Noah’s Ark was built by volunteers; the Titanic was built by professionals. Unknown

The mission statement for Randolph County Fire Association is “Your family is part of ours; the dedicated members of all Randolph County VFDs strive to provide professional emergency services to the communities we are entrusted to protect and serve. We will provide these services 24/7/365 in a safe, prompt and professional manner.”

JJ Wendling, the president of Randolph County Association of Volunteer Fire Departments is coming to the end of his term and reflected on the state of the association. “The fire service is facing some significant challenges as they look to the future. First and foremost is recruiting.” Not only does the fire service struggle with recruitment, but the aging population within Randolph County is also mirrored by our VFD members.

“On a recent brush fire call, I was asked by the homeowner where the younger guys were … I had to tell him, you’re looking at them!” said Wendling. It’s a challenge faced by departments nationwide, but felt close to home. Many departments in Randolph County started off as a family business. It was started by the grandfather or great-grandfather, continued by the father, and now looking to pass the reins to their sons and daughters. However, economics of the county require young adults to move outside the area to continue their education or to make a living for their own families. An issue faced by most of rural America, but one in which we need to find ways to keep our young talent in the area, or for them to come back in the future and either continue their family legacy or start a new one of their own.

“Since we aren’t paid for what we do, we rely heavily on a person’s sense of duty or commitment to their community, and also the amazing opportunities to learn new skills and form new bonds of fellowship and camaraderie within the fire service. While our job is exciting and at times dangerous, ultimately, I believe our members are thankful for the blessings they have, and the thing that drives them is their willingness to selflessly give back to others,” said Wendling.

Recently, Randolph County graduated 11 students from across the county from the Alabama Fire College’s Certified Volunteer Firefighter 160 course. After five months of course work and mastering job-related performance skills evaluations, these “newly-minted” firefighters will bring a new enthusiasm and initiative to our 17 volunteer fire departments within Randolph County, making our departments even more capable. Having attended this training alongside the other students, Wendling said he is impressed not only by the talent within the class, but also by their sense of duty … and certainly not the attitude and mentality our media ascribes to millennials these days. The age of the students ranged from 18-65 years of age, meaning while it is great for our more youthful students to learn new skills that are sometimes physically demanding, it is also never too late to teach an old dog new tricks. Two of the youngest in the class were Hannah Hill of East Randolph VFD and Tyler Gosdin of Woodland VFD, both 2019 Handley High School graduates.

In a career that is dominated by males, Hannah, is a bit of rarity, but that doesn’t deter her. She joined the department after a fire in her family’s yard and the responding firefighters encouraged her and her siblings to join … and she did! “I love it and I’m glad I did,” said Hannah. “My family thinks it’s really cool, and they are proud of me, especially being one of the few females in the field.”

Tyler echoed her thoughts, “I joined the fire department because I’ve always wanted to help people. However, I had no intention of being a firefighter. Then I went to a meeting and went on a couple of calls, and I saw firsthand how much of an impact that we had on the community. After that I fell in love with it. I love the aspect of helping people, the adrenaline, gaining lifelong brothers and sisters, and knowing that when I went to bed at night my community had someone they could rely on to help them … I had to be a part of that.”

Much like Hannah’s family, Tyler’s family was kind of skeptical about him joining at first. But after a couple months, they began to see how much he enjoys it and how much he is taking more responsibility of things than ever before. “Fast forward to present day, they tell me that they are proud I joined and grateful for the people in our department and others taking me in as family,” stated Tyler.

The job can be difficult, but as many have said, nothing worth doing is without effort. When asked about the most challenging aspect of her job, Hannah said she thinks what you see, or the issues you have to deal with on a call, can be challenging, whether it’s physically taxing, mentally traumatic because of something you witness, or challenging people you work with or have to deal with on a call.

Tyler said, “The most difficult aspect of being a volunteer firefighter is definitely the lack of help, as sometimes it may just be me and another guy in our department that respond. Some of our members and those with other stations are older and can’t do what a younger person can do. The older generation is not going to be here forever, so some of us young guys have to step up to the plate to help out our community. There are families out there that may need our help one day, and for me, I couldn’t go to sleep at night knowing that I at least didn’t try to make a difference within my community.”

Of the 2,500 calls Randolph County fire departments answered in 2021, more than 22 percent were fire related and 33 percent were medical calls. It takes a special kind of person to give up the warm comfort of their home to go and address the worst day of a complete stranger. Wendling believes this selfless service epitomizes the fire service.

“While we share the tragedy of the events people are going through,” Hannah stated, “…one of the most rewarding things is the fact that you are able to help people in a way that doesn’t benefit me. You learn and train for free (giving only your time), and when you go on a call, you’re filled with a sense of apprehension and excitement when you get to help others in crisis.”

Tyler said he appreciates the relationships he’s been able to build. “Since I’ve joined the fire department, I’ve gained countless people I consider to be like family. These people are there when you need them and would give you the shirt off their back,” said Tyler. Tyler’s already looking forward to those who will take his place. “Seeing the kids smile and be excited to see us and of course the trucks is very cool to see and be a part of. Being a part of something like this and building relationships is really rewarding,” Tyler commented.

“Anyone wanting to join or thinking about joining a department should just do it. I was so skeptical about doing it, but once I did it, I never looked back,” said Tyler. Although you may not choose to do all the training offered, you can always help out in many different ways,” said Tyler. Hannah had the final word by stating, “It’s a great way to get to know your community as an integral part of the first responder brotherhood/sisterhood including fire, EMS, E911 and law enforcement.”

In summary, the Randolph County Fire Association is a proud and capable organization that has brought many people together. While they may have come from different backgrounds, they all share the same values:

– Respect

– Integrity

– Accountability

– Teamwork

– Service

– Involvement

Wendling said he has been proud to serve the association, and while we can talk about how different we are, when the tones drop, we respond as one, focused on just one thing – getting to the scene and helping the victims in any way we can … to protect life, property and the environment. Whether its responding to the aftermath of a tornado in Rock Stand and Cornith, a bus accident in Wadley, or preventing a woods fire in Fosters Crossroads from spreading to nearby homes, the fire service will be there to help make your bad day better. Joining your local VFD is a great way to learn your community and neighbors, and all it takes is taking that first step.

If you think you’d like to be a part of this great organization, talk to someone from your local department or call our EMA at 256-357-0014 and they’ll put in touch with your local chief. God bless and protect our first responders.

Hannah Hill participates in extrication training as part of the Firefighter 2 curriculum.

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