The Firefighter's Back-up
There’s an old black phone sitting in the bedroom. It doesn’t have numbers; it doesn’t have a dial. It rings once in the morning, once in the afternoon with a call from the fire station just to make sure it is working. For over 30 years, Brenda Giles has been listening to that ring, hoping when it rings at other times during the day and night that the alert is not for something tragic.
Ironically, her becoming a firefighter’s wife came about because of a fire. “I probably caused Gene to join the fire department because I had a kitchen fire,” she tells. “I was frying okra and I had Calvin Propes putting in a ceiling fan. When I went to let him out the front door, I turned back around and my kitchen was going up in flames! I yelled at Mr. Propes and he ran back in to help. Then I ran next door to get Brodie. (He is the Fire Chief and I knew he’d know what to do.) Brodie was in the shower, but his wife, Patty, called for him and helped him get his clothes on really fast. He was there within a minute and put the fire out.”
Over the years, Brenda has learned not to be anxious about her husband going to a fire. She knows all the firemen are well trained. Every Tuesday evening, they have a fire meeting which involves some type of training. The training officer, currently Kraig Cain, plans a procedure for the members to hone their skills. As an example, a local wrecker service furnishes an old car for the firemen to practice excavation skills. During the winter they may do equipment drills which involves going to a truck, retrieving a piece of equipment, then explaining where its located and how it’s used. They don’t just sit and visit, but they do eat good while they’re there. Fire Marshal Duane Baushke’s wife, Judy, always fixes a meal each Tuesday night for the men.
Brenda boasts of almost always being able to predict a fire. “If he buys a new shirt or a new pair of pants, invariably he’ll be called to a fire and mess up his new clothes. It never fails!” Many times if a call is late a night, Brenda will not even realize her husband has been gone until she hears it on the radio the next day. “I’m not a person who is anxious or worries because I have faith that God is going to protect him. I also have faith in the firemen who are there to cover for each other, and I also know Gene has a lot of common sense. I don’t worry, but if he gets hurt, we’ll deal with it.”
At one time, Gene did get hurt on a call. “It was at a wreck and it was his own fault because he did not put on his bunker pants,” recalls Brenda. “He had to hurry in because it was critical for the person to be pulled out of the vehicle quickly. He cut his leg pretty deeply on the metal from the car where they had to use the Jaws of Life to get the person out. He ended up in the hospital and the young man that was really injured ended up checking on Gene. I thought that was really sweet.”
Because they lived next door to each other, Brenda and Patty Akins would some times sit together waiting for their men to come home, especially if it was a particularly bad situation such as the big explosion on Highway 79. “That was one time I remember being very fearful for them and their safety. You could see the fire from very far away. We weren’t sure if we needed to evacuate and get more distance between us in case of a bigger explosion.”
Firefighters never know when they will be called to duty, so they keep their bunker gear with them at all times. Sometimes a call comes in while Brenda is in the truck with Gene and they go straight to the fire. “I must confess, riding in the truck with Gene to a fire is pretty intense. I usually keep my toes curled the entire drive. It’s not really about him driving fast as it is about others getting out of the way. That’s why they’re called ‘First Responders’ so you expect them to do what they can to get there in a hurry.”
One of the most difficult times for a firefighter is when the call involves children. Gene says, “We tell our firemen when we get to a scene, if you don’t think you can handle it, step back. We don’t force anybody to do something they don’t feel comfortable doing. I’m able to separate the emotion and focus on what’s in front of me. It’s just like my job at the bank. It’s a job, it’s not personal. I’ve been given this blessing and it allows me to do what needs to be done.”
She can always tell if something is really bad by the tone of his voice. Her intuition kicks in after all these years. “When I hear them on a call I listen for his number, which is 20. If I don’t hear him answer when someone calls him, I get a little fearful. Gene recently had a little health concern and the doctor told him not to overexert himself. They were called to Beckville to help with a fire and I heard his voice on the pager and knew he was on the roof and shouldn’t have been. When he came in, he had this little boy look of innocence. He knew he was guilty!”
The professionalism and the respect of the fire department start at the top with Fire Chief Brodie Akins. Gene says, “If you just met Brodie, you’d think he was just an old country boy, but he is very smart and has a memory I wish I had 10% of. He can remember details that happened 30 years ago. It amazes me.” Many of the firefighters have been there a long time and are very seasoned. They have a lot of years of experience together with all different kinds of fires. “Randy Liedtke is one of the paid firefighters, and he’s one that I can always count on to be right there in the mix,” says Brenda. “It’s a serious business, but you’ve also got to learn to laugh.
“Gene does not show his emotions. He has a real focus and is able to stay levelheaded and handle the situation with professionalism. I know he probably thinks of the latest wreck on 315 every time he goes to the farm. You talk of soldiers having PTSD and I’m sure some firemen have that too, but I think if you have good faith, God carries you through those trying times. They view it as part of serving mankind.”
Gene has done construction work and roofed houses, but says, “Fire fighting is the hardest work I’ve ever known. Period. The wives are important because they have to be a big part of it. If Brenda didn’t like what I was doing and didn’t want me to do it, then I wouldn’t be able to do the job I can do. With the support of my wife, it makes it so much easier.”
The Carthage Fire Department invites the public to attend their annual Open House on Tuesday, October 11, at 6pm. There will be free hot dogs and drinks and activities for the children.