50 Years of Serving Henry County

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50 Years of Serving Henry County

50 Years of Serving Henry County

Sure, being a firefighter involves risking your life to help others in the event of an emergency, but it’s also about finding your second family.

“Hanging out at the kitchen table with the crew is the most comfortable place in the world,” explains Billy Petite, current assistant chief of EMS operations with the Henry County Fire Rescue, where he has worked for the last 21 years. “It’s where healing happens.”

Operations staff get assigned to a shift that includes 24 hours on starting at 7 a.m., then 48 hours off. Team members also can sign up for overtime shifts since the department is dozens of employees short at the moment.

At the start of that day-long shift, the crew is expected to report at 7 a.m. sharp in their uniforms to be ready to start the day, whatever that may hold since each one is different. In addition to responding to calls during that time, they are expected to load vehicles with appropriate gear and equipment; inspect, clean, and repair vehicles so they are in working conditions; and conduct or participate in training exercises.

“When we go to a call, it’s usually someone’s life-changing event. These people are at their worst time and we’re their last option,” says Justin Wynn, current lieutenant of operations at Henry Fire, where he has worked for the past 23 years. “I’ve been on calls where we’ve got a cat out of a tree to a grandparent having a heart attack or a mother having a baby. We’re here to provide care for their problem.”

Currently, the department, which is celebrating its 50th year in operation, houses 16 fire engines and three ladder trucks, 14 medical response ambulances, two rescue squad vehicles, and four quick response vehicles at 16 fire stations across Henry County. All employees are cross-trained as at least a basic firefighter and at least an advanced EMT with a starting salary between roughly $40,000 and $55,000 per year.

“It’s very rewarding – it’s not just a job, it’s more of a calling,” says Craig Hutter of the Prevention Division for the department he has worked for the last 23 years. “We all just want to help people.”

Wynn recalls that even in just the last 20-plus years that he has been in the department, Henry County has grown from 43,000 residents in 2001 to 140,000 after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, causing an influx of new residents, to now housing around 250,000 people in the county.

“We’ve had to drastically change — we needed more stations, more staff, more equipment,” explains Wynn, who attended all of grade school in the county. “Our county has grown so much over the years, adding big industry and all of the chain stores and restaurants, and it comes with high rates of speed and having one of the most dangerous stretches of Interstate 75.”

This past year, the department received 40,000 calls, some of which were serious and many of which were not, which causes even more problems with wasting resources. “It was just always taught to call 911,” says Hutter. “But it’s a huge education for residents that you only need to use it for what it’s meant for.”

Employees recall that they have seen calls for things like itchy hands and feet, not being able to find a television remote control, needing their lights turned off in their home, animals in homes and asking where an ambulance is going.

“Sometimes we can’t respond to an emergency because we have calls not as emergent,” admits Kortney Cheek, a lieutenant paramedic who has worked with the department for eight years.

Henry Fire staff conducts training for children and adults and welcomes residents to visit any of their locations for more information about their departments.

“We want the public to come by to ask questions,” says Wynn, adding that scheduled ride-alongs also are available for residents. “We’re not just sitting there coloring and playing video games. We’re extremely busy.”

Employees also take time to train themselves on equipment, changes in procedures, advancements in science and healthcare and improving their skills.

“The education is endless,” says Cheek. “We can’t stop training – we do training with our crew on an almost daily basis.”

Employees must renew their EMS licenses every two years, which requires a certain number of hours and classes. This is on top of the 40-plus weeks of school they attended for basic fire and EMS certification to get a starting job.

“The level of knowledge we receive is mind-blowing,” says Fiona Hardy, who joined the team two years ago after retiring as a flight attendant with Delta for 17 years.

“You learn so much,” Petite explains that science and medicine are constantly changing, so they have to continually enhance their skills. “They are educated at a much higher level of fire and EMS,” he says.

When they aren’t training, responding to calls, or keeping the firehouse clean and up to working order, staffers do try to take a break and rest for some of their shift — and meals are another big part of their day.

“We start thinking about what we want for dinner right after breakfast,” says Wynn.

Having a diverse staff means that many fire stations often enjoy a variety of ethnic meals at various levels of expertise. Favorites include authentic meals like birria tacos, French chicken dishes and buffalo chicken sandwiches to basic hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, chili, and spaghetti.

“We take care of each other — we’re a family,” says Wynn. “I learn every aspect of being a fireman but also about being a man.”

By Michelle Floyd