Pauls Valley, OK, Pauls Valley Democrat

December 6, 2011

Firefighters take working with less to dangerous extreme

Noteworthy Neighbor

Ezra Mann
Pauls Valley Democrat

Pauls Valley, Oklahoma — Because needs are a problem always exceeding supply, there are plenty of people or organizations who have made a vital skill out of doing more with less.

One individual who has had a little over 27 years to figure out more than one way to pinch a penny is Elmore City Fire Department Chief Eddie Stewart.

As a volunteer firefighter he is already taking a financial cut below those employed by larger communities, and then there is trying to run a department with increasingly outdated vehicles or gear in large part dependent on an almost nonexistent funding pool.

“It’s virtually impossible to keep a department up to code,” said Stewart, who is not a native, but grew up near Wynnewood. “We go, but sometimes wonder if we’re going to get home.”

This is why those in the Garvin County firefighting community are bringing before the public a plea to pass a one quarter cent sales tax on March 6, 2012.

Though they will still need to apply for grants and whatever county dollars are available, the tax, if passed by voters, is expected to provide an additional $750,000 each year to be split among the 12 departments in the county, or around $60,000 for each of them.

The benefits far outweigh the cost to the consumer because even if someone spent as much as a $1,000, they would only have to pay an additional $2.50 in taxes, said Stewart.

This is to pay for any number of department needs, but the most desperate is replacing bunker gear, in some cases so worn it is potential danger to the life of the firefighter, said Stewart.

To put it in perspective, a firefighter will often have two sets of what they wear for either wildfires or those in structures with costs to replace one being $1,000 and the other at least twice that much.

“We are all in such bad shape on safety gear it’s scary,” said Stewart, noting how if the tax passes they will first replace items from breathing masks to gloves.

“I have bad dreams at night because it falls back on me. We’re doing what we can with what we’ve got.”

There is still a stereotype where the type of person who would join a volunteer fire department has to be in it for thrills, but the side the public often misses is the investment it requires to do the job. This job is made difficult because they are constantly behind the curve on necessary equipment, having to rely on handed-down vehicles as old as 40 years or more and using equipment not recommended by safety regulations.

Much of these individuals already have jobs like Stewart who works for Marathon Oil, and that’s not to mention the strain on families who know their loved ones are not getting compensated for getting in harms way.

The camaraderie developed is undeniable and Stewart has the distinction of literally seeing some of his peers grow up into the volunteers they are today.

“Being a firefighter requires a dedication a lot of people don’t want to put out... I’m proud of what they do,” said Stewart, who said not everyone is meant to be a firefighter, but they need more young people to always step up.

“Most firefighters are adrenaline junkies, but they have a strong sense of community. I feel we can bring this department up to the next levels with money from this tax.”

There are even plans to host town hall meetings near the end of January or early February throughout most of the department areas to make sure people understand the need for a tax increase and answer any additional questions, said Stewart.

There will be representatives of several departments at each meeting, one of them most likely to take place at Garvin County Fair Barn in Pauls Valley’s Wacker Park.

In the end, what matters most is protecting the lives of both those responding to fire calls as well as the residents who are served, said Stewart. One of his most important philosophies is that while structures or even grassland can be replaced, lives are not expendable.

“My number one goal is to get everyone home safe,” said Stewart. “As long as I can still contribute and be an asset, I’ll do it.”