BRASELTON — Running into a burning house may not seem like a good idea to most people, but as local fireman Joel Keith said, “Somebody’s gotta do it.”
Tackling fires, responding to car wrecks and other local catastrophes is just another day at the office for firefighters at the West Jackson Fire Department.
Twenty-three firefighters, six of whom are full-time, shore up the Braselton-based department, led by fire Chief Ben Stephens.
Opened in 1968, the department covers 30 square miles in the Braselton and Hoschton area. One of 10 departments in Jackson County, West Jackson is the only one not solely volunteer-based.
On a recent Friday, firemen Keith and Stephens, along with comrades Cal Waldorf and Chris Miccoli, shone a little light on what life as a firefighter is like — and it isn’t just sitting around waiting for buildings to burst into flames.
Training exercises, maintaining department trucks, and other projects all play an important role in being able to fight fires.
“There’s always something going on,” said Stephens. “The usual perception that people have of firemen is that they eat a lot and hang out a lot.”
That stereotype couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Dousing a fire involves much more than manning a water hose, according to Miccoli.
“You’re not just putting water on a fire, there’s a lot that’s involved,” he said. “It’s a very physical and stressful job.”
When firefighters are completely “packed out” with all gear in place, they add between 60 to 75 pounds to their weight, according to Keith.
Couple this with the task of running into a burning building and maneuvering through an unknown environment, and you’ve got some pretty tough individuals.
But this, said Keith, is the “fun part.”
“When you roll up on a house and fire and smoke are blowing from everywhere, you want to go in there,” he said.
Fighting fires aside, all four men agreed that they joined the department out of an affinity for helping others.
Stephens, 30, joined the department in 2002 after moving to the area from Atlanta. He was named fire chief on Feb. 14, 2007.
“I moved up here ... and I didn’t know a soul,” he said. “So I started volunteering because I wanted to help the community, and I wanted to meet people.”
Keith, 45, the department’s assistant chief, has worked as a part-time firefighter at West Jackson for almost 15 years.
Growing up in the area, he said he joined to improve his childhood stomping grounds.
“I love doing it and enjoy doing it,” he said. “It keeps me in shape a little bit (and) I like helping the community.”
Waldorf, 22, volunteered for more than three years and started full-time on June 1. He joined partly because his brother-in-law, a fireman in DeKalb County, inspired him.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said.
Miccoli, 35, started full-time a little more than a year ago.
“I love helping people,” he said of his reasons for joining. “It’s something different every time.”
The scope of calls the department responds to varies, but one Chief Stephens will never forget was the May 30, 2006, house fire on Pendergrass Road that involved a quadruple homicide.
“I was the first person in that house,” he recalled.
Henry Lee Stringer now faces the death penalty for killing and burning Evelyn Strickland, 68, her daughter Marvelette J’Laine Strickland, 29, and Marvelette’s and Stringer’s two children, 4-year-old J’Majuan Stringer and 2-year-old J’Lasia Stringer.
That week, it seemed as if a “little black rain cloud” was hanging over the department, said Stephens.
In addition to the four murders, Stephens personally responded to an additional nine fatalities, all in a 10-day period.
Dealing with this much death might seem difficult, but Stephens said when at a scene, he focuses on helping those who can be saved and later reflects on those who died.
“When you’re out on a bad call, you are so busy trying to fix the problem that you don’t worry about what’s going on until it’s over,” he said. “When you’re out there, it’s kind of one of those, you save the ones you can.”
For Keith and Miccoli, responding to calls involving children is the hardest part of the job.
“I always look at it this way, if they’re kids, they didn’t have control of it (the situation), their parents did,” said Keith. “That’s the hardest part, emotionally.”
But whatever calls they respond to — a minor car wreck or major house fire — Miccoli said his goal remains the same every day.
“(We try to) keep everybody safe as much as we can,” he said.