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Putting Others First

Volunteer fire departments, with strong ties to co-ops, sustain the quality of life in rural Texas

For as long as he can remember, Mitch Creed dreamed of being a firefighter. He grew up in the North Texas town of Lindsay and, after getting married, moved to nearby Muenster. While working for a local machine shop, he realized his dream by joining the Muenster Volunteer Fire Department in 2009.

Creed enrolled in emergency medical technician courses at Grayson College and fire school at the Haz-Co Emergency Response Training Center in Denison, becoming certified as a firefighter and an EMT. When his wife, Kami, became pregnant, Creed sought a job with benefits. He found one at PenTex Energy, an electric cooperative based in Muenster, where he became a lineworker.

Working as a first responder for both the electric co-op and the volunteer fire department, he understands how the organizations work together in the community. “I’m surrounded by guys that I consider family,” says Creed, who moved up through the VFD ranks to become chief. “When you spend eight hours a day hanging out with your crew [at PenTex Energy], you make a tight bond. Then, of course, there’s a whole other group of guys at the fire department that you make tight bonds with.”

For Creed, the success of the co-op and VFD comes down to the people and the camaraderie. “Without bonds like these, both the co-op and fire department wouldn’t be able to function efficiently,” he says.

Across Texas, numerous co-op employees and board members serve their communities as volunteer firefighters. They comprise a diverse body of men and women who share a sentiment common among volunteer firefighters and electric cooperative team members—concern for community. Indeed, Concern for Community is one of the seven principles that guide cooperatives, which celebrate National Cooperative Month in October.

Sam Campbell serves as vice president of the board at Hamilton County Electric Cooperative and as secretary-treasurer for the Star Volunteer Fire Department. “Our motto for the Star Volunteer Fire Department is ‘Helping each other is what we do.’ We believe that if you help others when they need help, then they will help you in a time of need,” he says.

Cindy Lott and John Holzer train as North Hays County Fire and Rescue volunteer firefighters.

Eric W. Pohl

John Spiess, member services supervisor at San Bernard EC, west of Houston, and a former volunteer firefighter, explains, “Growing up in a rural community and being involved in Boy Scouts and my church taught me to put others first. In the rural areas, neighbors rely on neighbors in time of need and are there for each other.” Spiess spent 31 years with the Industry VFD—as a firefighter, an EMT, assistant chief and chief. Eight of his co-workers at San Bernard EC serve as volunteer firefighters.

Many Texas co-ops offer electricity safety training for first responders. Nueces EC, in South Texas, presents a 2.5-hour comprehensive safety class for fire departments. Live demonstrations show emergency personnel how to properly react to situations that involve electricity.

Lynn Simmons, director of communications for South Plains EC, in Lubbock, says several of her colleagues who are also volunteer firefighters exemplify the synergy among cooperatives, VFDs and the community. “South Plains EC appreciates and supports the local VFDs because they help protect our members and the co-op’s infrastructure,” she says. “We have about a half-dozen employees that are part of VFDs. Our employees wearing both a hard hat and fire helmet help us understand the value of cooperation in sustaining the quality of life in our local communities.”

North Hays County firefighters undergo swift-water rescue training on the Comal River in New Braunfels.

Eric W. Pohl

Community Support

Small towns and unincorporated areas depend on volunteer fire departments. In rural areas, VFDs provide the only available fire and emergency medical responders. According to the State Firefighters’ & Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas, 77% of fire departments in Texas are composed of all-volunteer crews. That’s higher than the national average of 65%, according to a 2019 report by the National Fire Protection Association.

As communities depend on volunteer fire departments, the departments themselves depend on their communities. Most VFDs are nonprofits and receive little funding from local taxes, relying instead on individual donors and community fundraising.

Steve Doty, president of the Bleiblerville VFD, says his department’s annual fish fry is its only fundraiser. “All of our operating and equipment purchases must be covered by this single event,” Doty says. “Although we provide services to the community at no charge, we are a private, nonprofit corporation and receive no money from the government. Many people in our area are not aware of this and assume that their property taxes cover our expenses.” Bleiblerville VFD has about 35 active firefighters, including lineworker Greg Giebel and supply warehouse manager Carl Kokemor, who work for San Bernard EC.

Eric W. Pohl

Co-ops Lending a Hand

In addition to local support, rural fire departments receive grants from organizations such as the Texas A&M Forest Service, the Lower Colorado River Authority and electric co-ops.

In 2018, Pedernales EC provided grants to volunteer fire departments in its 24-county service area, including more than $7,000 to Driftwood, North Hays County and Henly VFDs for training room and helipad upgrades.

“Volunteer fire departments are critical to our members’ safety, especially in the rural communities we serve,” says Caroline Tinsley Porter, community relations coordinator with Pedernales EC. “Without their commitment to serving others, many families and businesses in our service territory would be at elevated risk.”

Bastrop-based Bluebonnet EC partnered with LCRA last year to support fire departments. Grants included $50,000 to South Lee County VFD to help purchase a tender truck, $50,000 to the Dale Volunteer Fire Department to buy a cab and chassis for a new brush truck, and $25,000 to Salem VFD to help with a new storage building.

“We have awarded a lot of grants in support of the many volunteer fire departments and first responders across our 3,800-square-mile service area,” explains Melissa Segrest, manager of marketing and communications for Bluebonnet EC. “They are vital to the communities we serve.”

CoServ, based in Corinth, operates a charitable foundation that provides annual grants to volunteer fire departments. In the past two years, the foundation has awarded more than $75,000 to four nearby VFDs.

Last year, Medina EC, in South Texas, provided grants to two volunteer fire departments. The Pearsall VFD received $2,000 to purchase a portable defibrillator, and the Devine Fire and Rescue Department received $4,900 toward a brush truck.

Eric W. Pohl

Campbell, of Hamilton County EC, knows firsthand how beneficial co-ops are to their communities. “As a director, I realize that other communities in our service area have special needs, and our electric co-op is always willing to lend a hand with equipment and employees,” he says. “Through the Hamilton Electric Co-op, our fire department has received grants from LCRA to establish a building to house our trucks, equipment and to provide a community center for our residents.”

Medina EC assists volunteer fire departments that serve its 17-county service area by donating retired co-op vehicles. Since the inception of its vehicle donation program in 2015, Medina EC has donated vehicles to eight local fire departments.

Bandera EC supports more than 18 VFDs in its service territory, including Leakey, Pipe Creek and Medina. The co-op has provided personal protective equipment and satellite phones for first responders.

Two Bandera EC employees are volunteer firefighters. Technician Kenneth Alf has worked for the co-op for 29 years and has been with the Tarpley VFD for 30 years. Donny Rambin, a facilities maintenance technician, has been with the co-op for 13 years and the Medina VFD for 10 years.

“BEC has close ties with VFDs because the safety and well-being of our members is important to us,” says Samantha Gleason, BEC communications design specialist, whose brother and grandfather volunteer with the Pipe Creek VFD. “Volunteer firefighters work hard in rural areas like ours. These volunteers respond to more than just fires. They also respond to car accidents, loose cattle, downed power lines—you name it.

“VFDs provide life- and property-saving services, which align with our cooperative principle, Concern for Community, and our mission to improve the quality of life for our members.”