For Assistant Grayson Volunteer Fire Chief Duane Suttles, the recent ice storms have echoes of the blizzard of 1977-1978.
Suttles was a young man then — a teenager actually. He’d just joined up the Grayson Volunteer Fire Department in December of ’77, only to be thrown into a trial by fire.
Or ice, rather.
The blizzard, according to Suttles, was a double whammy — the heavy snow and ice knocked the power out in Carter County, forcing local residents to rely on wood stoves for heat. Then a train carrying chemicals derailed on the banks of the Little Sandy River, spilling its payload into the stream.
Suttles said the City of Grayson had to cut off its water pumps — in a short order, the water tank was tapped dry, he recalled.
The city was without water for 10 days. The National Guard was sent in — the fire services had to rely on tanker trucks for water.
In some ways, Suttles said the recent ice storms, which knocked out 90% of power in Lawrence, Carter and Elliott counties combined — didn’t escalate to the catastrophe all those years ago.
“But on the other side of things, people are relying more on electricity for their heat, so having the power out means a lot of people don’t have heat,” Suttles said. “Even folks with wood burners still need an electric fan to get the heat around the house. So the hardships and what people are going through is different.”
In the recent winter storms, Suttles said fire crews in Grayson have been working non-stop to clear trees from roads in order to get ambulances to medical calls and to get to residents trapped by the storm. Another focus of the fire service is getting folks to warming stations in town.
“We’re using side-by-sides to get to people,” Suttles said. “We’ve been running hard out here serving the public.”
At the Summit-Ironville Volunteer Fire Department in Boyd County, Captain Ryan Adams said both internally to the department and countywide, “our resources are maxed.” On Monday night into early Tuesday, Adams said crews ran hard hacking trees to clear the roads.
“These storms have been really hard on us,” Adams said. “There was the first storm, then there was no adequate thaw. The second storm compounded the problem.”
With phones ringing off the hook for trees across roads, crashing into homes and tangling up into power lines, Adams said fire crews worked hard in adverse — at times dangerous — conditions to serve the public.
“We had trees falling around guys, so we’d have to pull back,” he said. “Things were running hard until around 3 a.m. (Tuesday) then we had some calm.”
While volunteer fire response is crucial in responding to the ice crisis, Adams stressed the “cohesive” relationship between the departments, the Boyd County Sheriff’s Department, the county and state road crews and EMS.
“We’re out here helping one another,” Adams said. “The relationship we have, that’s a story in itself.”
What sets these men and women apart from your deputies and your paramedics is one key word — volunteer.
Adams said many of the folks at the station are working 9-to-5 jobs, in addition to handling power outages at their own homes.
“Some of these guys are displaced themselves,” Adams said. “They’re working six-, eight-, 10-hour shifts, then getting some rest and dealing with their own problems. It’s stressful.”
The families — those are the unsung heroes in any volunteer fire department, according to Suttles.
“All fire services, whether they’re paid or they’re volunteer, are family-oriented,” Suttles said. “With paid guys, they’re bringing home a lot of stress from their job after spending their 24 hours at the station. But with volunteer guys, they’re coming to the station in addition to their regular 40-hour-a-week job.”
Suttles continued, “If you look at fundraisers, like a spaghetti dinner or a boot drive, it’s not just the fire department out there, the families are there too. In times like this, the families have to take a back seat to the needs of the public. That can be hard — I know my family has over the 43 years I’ve been involved in the fire department.”
It takes a special kind of person to serve as a volunteer firefighter. For Suttles, the experience of the blizzard impressed upon him a lifelong career in public service — he served a brief stint as a police officer, he trained firefighters for the state for more than two decades, worked as an EMT and is now a code enforcement officer.
“I think what I seen instilled in my mind that this is my calling,” Suttles said.
Adams echoed that sentiment, stating that the type of person who becomes a volunteer firefighter is the type of person who wants to do things for their community. The trouble is, finding those people is becoming harder and harder, according to Adams.
“You look not just in the county, but nationwide and there’s a decline in the number of volunteer firefighters. Some of that is because a lot of families have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet,” Adams said. “That decline is making things more difficult — I’m a firm believer that many hands makes a job easier.”
Duane King, of the Oldtown Fire Department, said there isn’t a volunteer fire department anywhere that would claim it has enough volunteers.
“Someone has to do it. And I started doing it because I wanted to help my community,” King said.
Volunteer fire departments are comprised of people just like King, who feel the need to help anyway they can and dedicate themselves and their time and energy without pay of any sort. During emergency situations, especially in the case of the recent waves of winter ice and snow that have hammered our area, volunteer firemen work around the clock.
“There has been a lot of tree-cutting lately,” King said.
King said volunteer fire departments regularly work roadways when needed to keep them clear for emergency vehicles. Volunteers at Oldtown and other departments regularly train with the Forestry Department on how best to remove debris such as fallen trees. That training came into play as volunteers worked to remove trees that blocked roads throughout the area.
“We’ve pretty much got them clear now, but there were a lot of them down,” King said.
As King said, there is always a need for volunteers.
“It isn’t all about fighting the fires, either,” King said. “We need people to drive the trucks and work the hoses too.”
King also said that there is a need for volunteers in all other aspects as well.
Garth Wireman has been part of the Load Volunteer Fire Department since 2007, when he was 14 years old.
“I enjoy helping the community,” Wireman said. “And there is a need to serve.”
After a lot of training, and rising through the ranks, Wireman was elected as Load Fire Chief. He also became involved with the Greenup County E911, and is now the EOC Director. But every “hat” Wireman wears is tied to serving his community.
“We respond to a variety of calls,” Wireman said. “We respond to not only fires but things such as trees downed in the roadway, lines down on roadways, and medical calls. Where we are so far out in the county, and it takes the ambulance so long to get there, we respond to a lot of ambulance calls. And we respond to certain types of police calls; typically if the police or ambulance can’t respond, the fire department does. In a lot of cases, you are going to see the fire department before you see anyone else.”
The waves of storms took a toll on the area, and in typical fashion the fire departments were in the middle of first responders to the crisis.
Volunteer fire departments, Wireman said, were risking their own safety for the needs of others, even to the point of an extremely close call where a tree fell without warning and nearly struck one of the firemen and the emergency vehicle. The instance highlights the dangers they face, even with all of the training the go through each year.
Wireman said that his district was “lucky” in that it didn’t seem to be as hard hit as for instance King’s district in Oldtown, or Little Sandy, Russell and Flatwoods.
“Brush Creek and Long Branch was a mess,” Wireman said. “Jerry Brown, from Forestry, said Long Branch was so bad that the closest to it was what happened in 2003.”
Wireman said volunteer fire departments are always in the thick of such devastation.
Wireman said he expects the cleanup to take quite a while. As of Friday, the roads are looking much better, with most debris being at the sides of the roadway, but he said he expects to see some more hazards.
People should continue being careful, because it is possible that trees dislodged by the weight of ice and snow might continue falling as temperatures rise and the ground thaws, he advised. But volunteer fire departments will always respond to such hazards, day or night, along with other first responders.
“We do everything we can to keep people safe.” Wireman said. “And keeping people safe is why we do it every single day.”
Westwood firefighters said they have had a bigger need of chainsaws than fire hoses this week. It’s been a top-priority tool.
They've been using the saws to cut fallen trees blocking roads in their unincorporated community so they can get to people who are stuck in their homes.
One Westwood crew cut nine trees Tuesday night on a gravel road to evacuate a 93-year-old man from his home, said Westwood Fire Chief Brent Webster. He had lost power. The firefighters drove him to his son's home.
Webster has had 12 to 14 firefighters at the station at all times since the series of storms started, and by midweek they had been out on more than 70 calls. Besides clearing trees from roads, they have rolled for electrical transformer fires, downed electrical service drops and the like.
The work isn't easy. Ice makes cutting the trees more difficult. But the county doesn't have enough workers to do it without the fire department's help.
Firefighters also are ready to help people who can't get out for food and medicine.
They do it for their community, he said. As of Wednesday, the crisis effort had cost the department only about $300 for food to keep the firefighters fed.
"I know it sounds corny, but these boys want to help. It's all their family out there, and that's the way they see it,” Webster said.