Volunteer firefighters ‘backbone’ of Bastrop County departments

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    Lieutenant Lisa Eller, a volunteer firefighter with Bastrop County ESD No. 2, said, “You develop a family aspect” at the fire department. She encourages people to become a volunteer. [TERRY HAGERTY/ FOR BASTROP ADVERTISER]

    By Terry Hagerty, Contributing writer
    Austin American-Statesman

    Travis Ward credits his inspiration to join Bastrop County’s Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Department to an off-duty firefighter who stayed by his side after a near-fatal auto accident in 2018.

    “I’m very lucky to be alive and very thankful to that off-duty firefighter traveling with his family. He stayed with me and made sure I stayed calm,” said Ward, describing the moments after a collision near Marble Falls pinned him in his vehicle.

    “I was in a work vehicle and one of those big trucks transporting mobile homes crossed over and hit me head-on,” he said.

    It required first responders to use the Jaws of Life to free Ward, who suffered a brain injury, internal bleeding and multiple broken bones.

    In 2019, Ward found an opportunity to give back the kind of service the firefighter who came to his aid gave him. He joined the Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Department after Kris Cole, a fellow graduate from Round Rock’s Stoney Point High School and a firefighter, told him about openings at the department.

    “I was talking to Kris and he said volunteers were needed at HOP, so I went and joined last September and have loved it ever since,” Ward said. “It’s exciting. There’s always something different going on, and I’ve always been real big about serving the community.”

    Ward has earned certifications for wildland firefighting and Firefighter-I status. He is also undergoing training for EMT-basic certification. He encourages others to serve their communities by becoming a volunteer firefighter.

    “It’s an opportunity to help your community – to give back without being paid,” he said.

    ‘Giving back’

    Lisa Eller is a volunteer firefighter and paid administrator with Bastrop County Emergency Services District No. 2, headquartered on Texas 21 East. Her husband, Erick Johns, is a paid firefighter with the ESD No. 2 fire department.

    Eller, a lieutenant, has completed wildland firefighting, Firefighter-I and Firefighter-II certifications. Eller said she loves the challenge of being a firefighter.

    “Every situation is different,” she said. “I like puzzles, each situation we respond to is new. You have to figure out, you have to adapt. You do get your adrenaline going.”

    And with different situations come different challenges. She said “COVID-19 turned things into a new ballgame. When you go out to these jobs there are a lot of dangers anyway, but now you are facing something that you can’t see.

    “When you are out on a traffic accident you can see other cars coming, you can see what’s in front of you, but not with COVID. We already had a quite a bit of personal protection equipment, but now we have to add extra protection for COVID. We have a N95 mask and in some instances, shields and protective gowns.”

    She said firefighters don the extra safety gear when they’re alerted beforehand that there’s a person positive with COVID-19 at the scene they’ll be responding to.

    But despite the challenges of the job, she said it’s rewarding to give back to the community by becoming a firefighter. She recommends people become volunteer firefighters.

    “Just being able to come out and being able to give back makes you feel more rooted here,” she said. “Giving back to neighbors gives people a sense of pride of where they live. You develop a family aspect here. The majority of paid staff were volunteers here first – they have skin in the game.”

    Eller cited ESD No. 2 Fire Chief Josh Gill, a Bastrop High School alum, as an inspiring example of a firefighter who maintains their community connection.

    “One of the things I like is that Chief Gill grew up here. This has been his passion; he gives back to the place he grew up in and he feels very passionate about everything here,” she said. “The No. 1 thing is that we’re all going out and helping each other. It should never be about, ‘Oh, I’m getting a T-shirt’ or about saying, ‘Oh, you know, I’m a firefighter.'”

    Rising through the ranks

    Like Ward, the firefighter at the Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Department, Gill said his firsthand encounter with firefighters was what motivated him to join a fire department.

    “I saw this fire near our house, the firefighters were really struggling in fighting the fire. There wasn’t enough of them to do the job, so we chipped in and I immediately fell in love with it,” Gill said. “I joined the Bastrop Volunteer Fire Department in the summer of 2000, right after I graduated from Bastrop High School. I was a volunteer for 14 years, climbing through every rank to assistant fire chief.”

    After one year as assistant chief with the Bastrop Fire Department, Gill was named fire chief of ESD No. 2 in 2016.

    “There’s a certain excitement to responding to emergencies, but the best thing I like about my job is helping people,” he said. “The next best thing is that it’s never the same. You can go from complete boredom cleaning a toilet to rushing into a burning building to save someone. You never know what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen. You have to be ready, trained and equipped to handle any situation in a matter of seconds.”

    Gill said part of what makes a fire department successful and keeps a community safe, is having dedicated volunteers who spring into action when an emergency arises.

    “Volunteers do an excellent job – they are the backbone of this fire department,” he said. “Seventy-five percent of our staff joined as volunteers. We brought them up through the ranks, trained them and hired them. So, if you are a volunteer here, there’s a real good chance of getting a full-time job once you become certified.

    “We always need volunteers. We have approximately 30 volunteers now – 50 would be ideal, 40 would be comfortable. You never know who you’re going to get for a fire call with people having varying schedules. When you have 50 volunteers you may only have 10 available, so the larger the pool, the better.”

    Gill said the department’s goal is for volunteer firefighters to make at least 35% of the calls a month.

    He detailed the initial requirements to becoming a volunteer firefighter. “There’s a pre-employment physical and annual physical evaluations. There is no weight requirement as long as firefighters can pass a physical agility test,” he said.

    Gill encourages potential candidates to visit their area fire department. “If you ever considered becoming a firefighter, go down to your local fire station, whichever one is closest to your house. Knock on the door and see if it’s something that’s a good fit for you. A good volunteer firefighter gives back easily, they like to help other people – which is a good foundation because that’s what they do on the job,” he said.

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