2006-10-19 / Front Page

Fire department's looking for good men, women too

By Donna K. Drago

This Saturday the Jamestown Fire Department will hold an open house in hopes of recruiting new volunteers.

Training Lieutenant Melissa Hicks said that while the department used to have 75 volunteers on staff right now there are only 60. "We're short" of people, Hicks said. In recent years, a lot of young people joined the department, Hicks said, adding that many of them have gone off to college or moved off the island.

The open house will run from noon to 2 p.m. at the fire station and be a good opportunity for residents to meet the department's volunteers, learn about the individual pieces of firefighting equipment, and ask a wide range of questions about all aspects of firefighting.

There will be refreshments and activities for children as well, Hicks said.

Hicks said that she'd love to see citizens in the 30 to 60 age range show an interest in applying as volunteers. "The older volunteers bring a different skill set" to fire safety training and are often more stable and likely to stay on the island for a while. But, she said, she is not trying to discourage young people, who are welcome to the department at the age of 16.

The youths are put into the fire academy and rotate serving on each piece of fire apparatus for three months, she said. At the age of 18, the teens can be voted into the department by the full membership.

"We'd also like to see more women," Hicks said, adding that about 10 of Jamestown's firefight- ers are women. "You don't have to be a guy" to do this, Hicks said.

"A lot of people are turned off," by the thought of having to run into a burning building, Hicks said, but she pointed out that volunteers can also serve as drivers, pump operators or equipment packers. "Not everyone has to fight fires," Hicks said.

Volunteers must live in Jamestown, Hicks said, noting that with the newly established "pay-per-call" incentives, recipients of the benefit must be island residents.

Among the longest serving volunteers is Valmont "Bucky" Caswell, who has been an active volunteer firefighter for 57 years. He said the younger members of the force treat him "like a grandfather" now and won't let him get near a fire. But he still serves on the tanker company and is stationed at the nearest water source or "wherever they set up" for every event. Now 78, Caswell said he started hanging around the fire station in about 1942, and this Tuesday he was installing rechargeable hand-held flashlights in Tanker 1.

Caswell is seen nearly every morning, along with his longtime partner Dalton Brownell, who together replace and maintain the department's fire-call lines all over town. "We do three hours every morning and that's it," Caswell said about his self-imposed schedule.

About being a volunteer, Caswell said it was sort of a family affair. His father was a volunteer in the early years of the company, and his son Kenny is also a longtime volunteer. His son Andy was a volunteer for a time. Caswell said that his late wife, the former Barbara Hull, was the daughter of a former fire chief, Merton Hull. "She put up with a lot," Caswell said about his wife. "All the women do," he added.

He's made a lot of friends through the fire department, Caswell said, and he's enjoyed the camaraderie and "the excitement" that comes with being a first responder.

"I really enjoy it," Caswell said, noting that he has no plans to retire from his volunteer job.

One of the department's newest recruits, Jodie Woodside is so enthusiastic about her choice to join, "I can't stop talking about it," she said.

A senior at North Kingstown High School, Woodside, 17, said she is the only member of her family to be a part of the fire department, and "I love it!"

Woodside said that since joining the JFD in January she has been trained in how fires spread, use of firefighting tools, and the proper procedures for searching a house. She was recently assigned to her first piece of equipment, Ladder 1, and will eventually get a chance to serve on all the trucks before becoming a full-fledged member of the department.

Being a volunteer "has improved my communication skills," Woodside said about having to interact with the rest of her company on Ladder 1. "It's made me a better member of my community," she added.

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