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This man helps firefighters cope with trauma they see on the job. It recently earned him a volunteer of the year award
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Chaplain Bill Carr visits Gainesville Fire Station 1 Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019, on Pine Street. Carr is the First Presbyterian Church chaplain for local firefighters. - photo by Scott Rogers

Bill Carr's mother wouldn't let him play sports when he was young because they were too dangerous. So, at 16 years old, Carr decided to become a volunteer firefighter in his little town of Matthews, North Carolina.

Turns out, that one decision, somewhat rebellious but definitely earnest, led to a long career of serving his community and country as a police officer, firefighter and soldier. And it’s his volunteer work since retiring that earned him an honor from his church.

“My chaplaincy work in the Army was sort of the beginning of realizing I had the opportunity to serve people and be of assistance to them when they had been exposed to trauma,” said Carr, a member of First Presbyterian Church in Gainesville.

Carr, having retired from public safety, now raises beef cattle in Hall County. He served in the United States Army Reserve as a chaplain after earning his doctor of ministry at McCormick Theological Seminary and his master of divinity at Columbia Theological Seminary. He went on to become a Presbyterian minister and pastoral counselor.

Instead of responding to fires and crime, Carr now, for more than a decade, has worked as the chaplain for the Gainesville Fire Department. And it has been Carr’s own, quiet mission — he’s a volunteer and the church’s local missions committee honored him with its Volunteer of the Year award.

“We didn't even know he was doing it,” said Jack Spencer, a member at the church. “We've got a couple hundred people in the church that pledge hours and Bill is just sort of quietly doing it. He never even mentioned that he was doing the chaplaincy work.”

Even though Carr might not mention it, the men and women at the fire department have. He answers the call whenever it comes. Gainesville Fire Chief Jerome Yarbrough said Carr has never turned him down when he’s called on him.

“He’s got that knack where he can come in and he just fits in,” Yarbrough said. “He talks on everyone’s level. And when he does talk, people listen.”

When something traumatic happens in the field, Carr shows up to help the firefighters deal with the trauma they witnessed or the struggles that may linger.

“It seems to come naturally to him,” Carr’s wife, Jan, said. “He has always been dedicated to his fellow man. And when someone needs help and reaches out, he’s there. He’s the rock.”

Carr said he typically is called when there’s a murder, suicide or infant death. And being in a small town, he said responding to an incident that involves one of the firefighter’s friends or family members is always a possibility.

Whenever they need him to help out, consoling, counseling and helping firefighters work through these traumatic events, Carr said no matter what he’s doing, that becomes his priority.

“If you don't address the trauma right when it occurs, it's like you're operating this equipment with folks that are contaminated,” Carr said. “The goal is to address trauma at its earliest point with firefighters and sort of clean them up so they can get back to doing what they love the most.”

It’s not just about cleaning them up. Carr focuses on building relationships with the firefighters during the normal times, too. Oftentimes, it’s done while sitting on the bumper of the fire trucks at each station, asking a simple question.

“‘You OK?'” Carr will ask. “There's a lot of meaning in that question, and I think they know I mean business.”

But Carr knows trust isn’t built just through the heart. He earns it by appealing to that other critical piece of firefighters — their stomachs.

When he’s not counseling, Carr can be found dropping into a station to cook one of his favorite breakfast meals.

“Swiss roasties,” he calls it. ”It’s a dish that has a potato base, but it also has eggs and either bacon or ham and cheese layered into it. So you stack it up and you cook it all in one pan ... And it's really good.”

That’s an important part of his job. If he’s not around the ones he’s there to serve as much as he can be, it would be hard to know when something wasn’t right.

“Bill is the person who they can trust,” Spencer said. “He's been doing it for a long, long time and since he's had training as a chaplain, he knows how to do that counseling process with them to be sure that they can move forward.”

The job isn’t always as simple as cooking breakfast. It’s tough a lot of the time. But if anyone is able to do it, it’s Carr.

“It can be a very difficult job,” Carr said. “But I think part of my own training, being in this whole area of trauma experiences and trauma recovery, you discover how to overcome.”

But he’s also seen what happens when trauma isn’t dealt with.

“You will also discover how it can paralyze you,” Carr said. “The rewarding thing is to realize … if you can help another one come out of those traumatic events without major damage, then it's a good day. It's a very good day.”

Carr does his work by counseling firefighters through whatever they saw and whatever they need help dealing with. They know he’s near whenever they need him.

“I am extremely proud of his service,” Jan Carr said. “And I have always known him to be available to others in their time of need … It’s just a part of his character. It’s part of who he is.”

But the weight of counseling people through trauma takes its toll on Carr, so he said he learned early on that he had to find his own escape.

For him, that’s with his cattle.

“Get out in the open, in God's good earth to experience the beauty of God's creation and the absence of the stressors that are associated with all of these traumas,” Carr said. “What I encourage folks to do is to find something just totally opposite of what they’re experiencing to kind of cleanse the mind and soul of those things that are troublesome. So that's what I do myself.”

He gets away like that as much as he can because he responds to things like the hostage situation at Gainesville Dermatology from early 2019. He was there to make sure the firefighters and even the employees were handling things well after the suspect was shot and killed by police.

Yarbrough said Carr went to the dermatology office to check on the staff there and even was at the fire station later, checking on the firefighters who responded.

“He’s always in that mode to help,” Yarbrough said. “ He did come back to the station and have conversations with them and made sure everybody was OK.”

Both Yarbrough and Carr said first responders aren’t immune to trauma. They are oftentimes some of the ones who feel it most, which is why he is there and why his job is such a necessity.

“Firefighter is one of those professions you’re supposed to be strong and brave … but in the back of your mind, certain things you see weigh on you,” Yarbrough said. “We see a lot of stuff, but still we’re not immune to getting emotionally involved.”

It’s a reality Carr said has been more prevalent in 2019. The beginning of the year in Hall saw numerous shootings, and that doesn’t include any of the other traumatic events firefighters may have responded to. Carr’s job is more important now than ever.

“The pressure that's on our first responders now is a different kind of pressure,” Carr said. “There is this knowledge that anytime you go out, you may have a fatal situation.”

That’s why he volunteers his time throughout the year, checking on firefighters around Gainesville, making sure they have what they need and are in a good place to respond to calls.

It reminds him of his days as a firefighter, and he feels that if he’s able to help at least one person in their time of need, his volunteer work has been time well spent.

“As a retired person, it gives me a good sense of meaningful work,” Carr said. “And you can't beat it …  I'm honored to be present with them in difficult circumstances to cope with whatever they need to deal with.”

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Bill Carr, center, is the First Presbyterian Church chaplain for local police and firefighters. From the left members of Gainesville Fire Station 1 are Chad Payne, Brent Clanton, Keith Smith, Carr, Jonathan Sutton and Greg Hunsinger. - photo by Scott Rogers
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