Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

April 23, 2013

First responders integral community volunteers

Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress

JACKSONVILLE — When disaster strikes, they're among the first on the scene to help get the situation back to normal.

They are the the folks who provide emergency response services, people who offer their help because they've “got a big heart (and genuinely) want to help others,” said Jacksonville Fire Captain Ted Hunt, who also serves as chief of Earle's Chapel Volunteer Fire Department.

Volunteers with the Jacksonville Citizens Police Academy “are a tremendous help” to the local force, helping “promote better understanding of the work we do as a police force,” added local police Detective Tonya Harris. “It's just wonderful to have them.”

Earle's Chapel is one of a dozen such volunteer fire departments, comprised of 18 volunteers based out of a fire station located five miles west of Jacksonville on U.S. 79 and whose “area” covers approximately 125 square miles.

Formed in 1996 by Daniel Bailey, the first Earle's Chapel chief, this department “was founded for fire protection in a rural community that didn't have a fire department,” Hunt recalled.

“The closest was Jacksonville, who used to do runs in the county, but no longer do so as first (responders). They do provide mutual aid (back-up) when needed, though,” he added.

The biggest challenge is having enough volunteers on hand to respond to a call in their area, which is tricky when most of them hold full-time jobs outside of that area.

“It’s a rural community, and (often) there’s no one there who is close by .... that’s why we need mutual aide, because we might only have 1-2 people who can respond,” Hunt said, explaining that when there is a structure fire, trucks are needed to bring in enough water to battle the fire, and “usually, we have three departments respond to a call” because of that.

The other challenge is that volunteer firefighting seems to be becoming “a thing of the past” because people often are taking on additional work to make ends meet economically, he said.

“It’s hard to fit in that time (a response to) a call ... it’s just hard to get people to volunteer anymore, and there's not a lot in it except satisfaction of helping community, helping someone,” said Hunt, who began volunteering at age 15 with the Bullard Volunteer Fire Department. “That’s why I do it (as do two of his sons). It’s just something you grow up with; you volunteer because your family does it.”

For folks like Kenneth Gardner, president of the Jacksonville Citizens' Police Academy Alumni Association, entering the academy in 2004 was just another way go becoming immersed in the community where he lived.

“If you're going to live in a community, you're going to be part of it,” he said.

The academy is a 12-week program in which participants ages 21 and older take 30 hours of instruction that provides them with a working knowledge of the local police department's personnel and policies.

As they learn about the work their police force does, a strong bond is fostered between the two groups, and as a result, law enforcement agents become more aware of the needs and concerns of the community.

Jacksonville incorporated the program in 1994, Harris said, with an average of 15-20 participants in each time the program is held. To date, the JCPA alumni association numbers 40 to 50 active members who assist however needed, whom Gardner said donate an average 1,400 volunteer hours to the department.

These volunteers serve at parades and fundraisers like the recent Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event, directing traffic and ensuring a safe route for participants; they assist at events like the Tomato Festival, providing rides to elderly members of the community to and from the event site from where they've parked; they hold drawings and other fundraisers to help supply the police department with items not covered by the city's budget.

“I couldn't do my crime prevention events without them (because of) the manpower they provide. We may have to fingerprint 100 kids, and you know we couldn't do that without their help,” Harris said, adding that it also is a big help when a member of the academy happens to be there when they respond to a call because they understand what to expect.

During the training, “they learn about what we do and when. Some people who never deal police don't understand that there are certain rules we follow (but) when they go to the academy, they learn this stuff,” and then they turn around and share what they've learned with others, she said.

“You really get to see what our officers do in our community,” Gardner said, adding that “you don't really realize what they do every day, or what kind of danger they're in.”

As a result, the alumni association tries “to work with them, to help them with anything they need,” he said.

Recently, they donated money to help convert a donated ambulance from the local fire department into a police SWAT team vehicle, as well as provided funds for items needed at the shooting range. Gardner said he even helped garner a $40,000 grant to put computers in squad cars to help cut down on time spent doing paperwork.  

“Sometimes the city has a certain budget, (and there is) not enough for all projects,” he said, adding that the group also supports local organizations like the crisis center and H.O.P.E. “All the money we take in, that we work for, 100 percent is donated right back into the community.”

While volunteerism is an unpaid job, “you're paid in satisfaction of what you have done; the gratification is knowing you have helped someone in time of need,” Hunt said. “It’s a sense of accomplishment.”