Volunteer fire fighting is not what it used to be in granddad's day.
John Jewell, fire chief of the Watertown Volunteer Fire Department, who notches his 50th anniversary with the squad in December, has seen the changes right before his eyes.
"We used to be notified by whistle on top of old city hall. You woke up in middle of the night and took off for the fire hall," he recollected of his rookie years in the 1960s.
"We called it sidewalk firefighting in the old days because people stuck hoses in windows and then creeped inside a front door. Once we got self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), we became more comfortable, and now we go inside the building where the fire is and are more aggressive."
The dean of Wilson County firefighters remembers the very first fire he was called on to help extinguish.
"It was a house fire behind the old high school. They gave me the task of rolling a 2½-inch supply line from the truck to hydrant. I hooked it to the hydrant and spinned it around 'till it opened," he said.
In those days, Jewell reckons they had from 10 to 15 volunteers respond to a night call.
Today, the only fully volunteer fire department in the county (the Mt. Juliet Fire Department has some volunteers on staff) numbers about two dozen members, including two women. Most are between 25 and 40 years of age.
While many states around the country have been witnessed a decline in volunteer firefighters over the past 30 years, Watertown is holding its own. It and WEMA team on all calls.
Better training, equipment
As for the major changes that Jewell has seen across the decades, he says, "Volunteer firefighters today are better trained, and we are better equipped. That training allows us to be far more aggressive firefighters.
"In the old days volunteers were scantily equipped. We didn't have much turnout gear, but now we're more like our paid counterparts. We've also got stronger trucks, more hoses, more nozzles, more equipment like self-contained breathing apparatus and thermal imaging.
"We're better disciplined in who we accept as members. We screen new members more than we used to make sure they're physically fit. We try to place people a little better and get our best bang for the buck with personnel."
The fire chief reports that over the years fire calls have decreased, while the number of calls have increased, mainly due to medical calls, auto accidents and rescue cases.
"We make 450-500 calls a year, primarily providing medical care. We follow the ambulance. We have the only county ambulance south of I-40 and east of Cainsville Road," he said.
"We primarily began to serve the city, but probably 60 to 70 percent of our calls are outside the city," said Jewell, noting their zone covers the southeast quadrant of Wilson County
Being a volunteer not as easy
While the quality of training and equipment are up, societal changes have made it more difficult to serve as a volunteer firefighter.
"The demand for better trained fireman is a deterrent because some people don't have the time to take the training classes. The men don't mind, but it's the time. Most of them have full-time jobs," Jewell said.
"We may have a guy who is a good firefighter, but he is an over-the-road truck driver. If you're at work, obviously you can't come to a fire call. Day calls are the hardest for a volunteer fire department to handle."
The fire chief says that with two dozen volunteers he is in better shape than normal, but he would like to have 40 firefighters. Among factors hindering that goal is that the volunteers need to live within three to five miles of the fire hall and the lack of funding to train more firefighters along with the cost of providing workman's comp for those on call.
State fire marshal shares facts
Of the state of Tennessee's 696 fire departments, 537, or 77 percent, are volunteer fire departments. Of the 22,932 firefighters in Tennessee, approximately 15,154, or 66 percent, are volunteers. Over the past three decades, the number of volunteer fire departments have seen a decrease.
Gary West, Deputy Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, responding to the cause of the decline of volunteer fire departments in the Volunteer State, said, "We previously had about 730 fire departments in the state. Over the last several years we've seen that people don't volunteer like they did in the past. They have kids involved in soccer, baseball and other activities. Being a volunteer is more difficult than it has ever been.
"Another factor in the decline is that we have fewer catastrophe fires in Tennessee. The reason is because we have built-in fire protection like smoke alarms and fire sprinklers... People are less likely to volunteer when they don't feel the immediate need of helping the community.
"While there has been a reduction in the number of fire departments, we haven't necessarily lost coverage across Tennessee. There are a few places that don't have fire department coverage, but almost all communities have fire departments that will respond, even if from another community."
As for the future of volunteer fire departments that continue to lose firefighters, he reasons, "If volunteers are not participating, then communities have no choice but to hire career firefighters to protect their communities."
West, who serves as the state fire marshal by day, has spent years as a volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Ashland City.
"I go in and do standby. I show up at the station, get my gear and respond, and I look like everybody else," he said. "We all look professional, and all have the same training and the same requirements. Some get paid and some of them volunteer. As a volunteer there's this huge satisfaction of being able to help your community. You're assisting people, saving peoples' lives, making a difference."
Good department takes good firemen
West also said, "Historically, Watertown has always been a good fire department. They train and have good firefighters."
That begs the question what does it take to be good volunteer fireman?
Fire chief Jewell answers, "A person who is in good health, good average strength, not excessively overweight, has some aggressiveness, can think quickly on their feet and has some endurance."
The history of Watertown's fire department, according to Jewell, goes back to the early 1920s when the volunteers pulled four-wheeled hose carts to fires inside the city limits. Later, Model As were used to pull the carts. The department bought its first fire truck in the 1930s.
Today, the volunteers have access to four pumper trucks, a rescue truck, a brush truck, a medical squad, a county 2,000-gallon tanker and an ambulance at the fire hall.
Service comes at a price
Jewell said there are two types of fire trucks: a commercial truck where they put a firebed on a Ford or Chevy, which runs about $335,000; or a custom-built fire truck that costs $500,000.
"The volunteer fire department has purchased eight vehicles here by borrowing money and raising money and paying the notes. At present we owe $42,000," he said.
Watertown's new fire hall and police headquarters were erected in 2009. Co-funded by the city and the county and the city, the structure cost $1.2 million.
The fire department supplies the standard turnout gear for the volunteers. Their wearing apparel can cost $2,000 to $2,500, and an air pack runs as high as $9,000.
The gear, which firefighters must be able to suit up in within three minutes, includes shin-high leather or rubber boots, heavy insulated fire retardant pants (the pants and boots together are called bunkers), a leather strap to hold up the bunkers, a coat, a hood that covers the head, neck and ears (made of Nomex, a fire retardant fabric), a helmet and gloves, and on top of that, a SCBA.
"It's not a cheap business," said Jewell.
Thus, the department began holding a monthly fish fry about 15 years ago.
"All volunteer fire departments have fund-raisers. They got to," said Jewell. "We were needing a consistent stream of cash for things.
Fish fry helps pay the bill
Now, the first Saturday of the month from noon until about 7 p.m., 15 to 20 of the firefighters, their mates and children whip up a feast that feeds 350 to 400 folks. Last month they fed right at 400 people and raised $1,700.
The all-you-can-eat meal costs $9 and features catfish, chicken, fries, white beans, cole slaw, hush puppies, sweet and unsweet tea and lemonade.
Handling the fish-frying chores in May were volunteer firefighters Prentice Reynolds and Winston Beard. Beard, a 14-year member of the fire squad, said, "The secret's in the batter." He fries the catfish for exactly five minutes and 30 seconds and says he learned from Assistant Fire Chief Tony Lea, who coordinates the feast.
Lea, who has been on the fire department for over 30 years, says they begin preparing at 6:30 a.m. He's the food purchaser, batter maker, bean cooker and slaw maker and concocts the tea and lemonade. Jewell washes the dishes.
The fire department has one other major means of fundraising, a mailer requesting donations that goes to every home in the southeast quadrant of the county. It should be going out in early June.
Volunteers pay their dues
Besides fighting fires, making medical and rescue calls and fundraising, the Watertown volunteers drill and train from 7 to 9 p.m. Mondays.
Their first year as firefighters they must complete basic fire school, also known as rookie school, by spending 64 hours in the classroom and three days at the state fire school in Deason in Rutherford County, where they practice fire scenarios.
There are a number of other volunteer fire departments in adjoining counties in the communities of Alexandria, Lascassas, Rock City, Liberty, Lancaster, Sykes, Temperance Hall, Kittrell, Auburntown and Gordonsville.
Why they serve
Why do these men and women give up their free hours and risk their lives as volunteer firefighters?
The reasons may vary from individual to individual, but Assistant Fire Chief Lea suggests, "They want to do it to help people, but they also do it for the adrenalin rush, the excitement of it. They just started doing it and kept doing it."
Capt. Blake Haun, who also serves as training officer, has been a member of the Watertown Volunteer Fire Department for 10 years. He said, "I joined the department when I was in college studying fire science and thought it would be a good experience. I really enjoyed what I saw and fell in love with the fire service and have been there ever since."
Says Fire Chief Jewell, "They're going to do it because they like it. None of them have to do it."
Watertown Volunteer Fire Department Fish Fry
When: Noon to 7 p.m. (or until the food runs out) first Saturday of the month
Where: Fire hall, 160 S. Statesville Ave. (off Highway 70)
Menu: Catfish, chicken, fries, hush puppies, cole slaw, white beans, sweet and unsweet tea, lemonade
Price: $9 for all you can eat
Phone: (615) 237-3638
Tennessee fire department and firefighter statistics
The state of Tennessee has three categories of fire departments: career, volunteer and combination (those that use both career and volunteer firefighters).
There are 696 fire departments in the state. Forty-five are career (in the bigger cities), 537 are volunteer fire departments, and 114 are combination.
There are approximately 22,932 firefighters in Tennessee. Approximately 7,107 are career, and 15,154 are volunteers. There are 671 firefighters that are volunteers but receive a stipend or financial benefits but are not doing it as a career.
Source: Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance
National firefighter statistics
A report published earlier this year by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) showed that 1,134,400 firefighters protected the United States in 2014. Thirty-one percent (354,160) of them were career firefighters and 69 percent (788,250) were volunteer firefighters.
Most career firefighters (70 percent) are in communities that protect 25,000 or more people.
Most volunteer firefighters (95 percent) are in departments that protect fewer than 25,000, and more than half are located in small, rural departments that protect fewer than 2,500 people.
The NFPA's tabulations show the number of volunteer firefighters per 1,000 people has been decreasing since 1986. The report, which gets its data through surveys of fire departments, in part looked at the number of career or full-time paid firefighters and the number of volunteers from 1986 through 2014.
There were 788,250 volunteers in 2014 compared to 808,200 in 1986, according to the report. The number of career firefighters has seen an increase during that same time frame, rising from 237,750 in 1986 to 346,150 in 2014.