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November 25, 2012

Whitfield fire chief reflects on 35 years

Whether they’ve been there for the whole ride or are just now climbing aboard the truck, Whitfield County Fire Chief Carl Collins says he is proud of all his fellow firefighters.

“There are members here tonight that have been providing this service for the entire 35 years (of the department’s existence),” Collins said during the 35th Annual Whitfield County Firefighter’s Appreciation Banquet on Nov. 13, “and there are members that are just beginning their journey of service. Regardless of your years of service or experience level, you’re a very important part of this department.”

The chief is one of seven firefighters who have been there ever since Whitfield County organized a fire department in 1977. Those original seven, who were honored with plaques and watches during the banquet, also include Huey Talley, Scott Denson, Maurice Moody, Ron Ownby, Ernie Verhine and Wayne Saylors.

“I think I’m proudest of the fact that as a department we have had a motto and have lived up to it,” Collins said, “and that is ‘Providing the best service possible that is feasible with the resources we have.’ We certainly don’t have every piece of equipment that we want; we don’t have every piece of equipment that we need. But we have always used what we’ve got to the best of our ability and made the most out of the situations.”

Collins said he is a big fan of former President Teddy Roosevelt, who once said, “Do what you can with what you have where you are.”

“I think that’s the attitude of this department,” Collins said. “We roll up on the scene and whatever that incident is, we make the most of everything we’ve got there to work with —  people, resources and equipment — and we get the job done. And that’s something to be proud of.”

The chief also pointed out another pertinent Roosevelt quote: “The man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic, the man who actually does the work even if roughly and imperfectly, not the man who talks and writes about how it ought to be done.”

“I want you to remember that all of y’all are doers, and I’m proud of the job that y’all do,” Collins said. “You should be proud of yourselves and continue to do the best with whatever you have to do with and continue to make this department an outstanding one.”

Collins thanked the county Board of Commissioners for their approval of a new pumper for the department. “They’re just awaiting our recommendation as to which one to go with,” he said. “That’ll be a benefit to us, and I know you all will join me in thanking the commissioners and Mr. (Mark) Gibson (administrator) for their support, both monetarily and spiritually.”

The chief said the county has welcomed many new rookie firefighters during the past few years, “which puts us to the fact that we have new, less experienced members as well as the more experienced ones. I want to advise all of you, but especially the new ones: Don’t ever be ashamed to ask for help if something’s bothering you.”

Collins said everyone has had a hard time emotionally after answering certain calls. “It’s not easy putting a mother and a 6-month-old and two other children in body bags,” he said. “It has a tendency to stick with you your whole career, but that’s the things that unfortunately we’re called to deal with.

“But in most cases, whether it’s a bad wreck, people screaming and you trying to extricate them, chaos all around, it helps to talk to people that you trust and understand and have been through it themselves and get it out and get it off your chest. We’re tough, macho, kind of like Superman. I can walk through deep water, I can climb tall buildings … with a ladder. But there’s times that all of us get to the point that things bother us. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to talk about it.”

As an example, he pointed to the aftermath of the tornadoes in nearby Ringgold and Catoosa County in 2011.

“We got called in up there and got right in the middle of it before we realized what we had actually been sent to,” Collins said of the deadly storm that killed several residents. “That devastation was so close to home, it really I think brought it out in a lot of people’s minds that hey, for just a little bit, that could have been us and our families and all. The thing about it, when you’re in the middle of doing it, you got a job to do and you just do it. You don’t think a whole lot; you just react and do what has to be done. It’s after we get back and get home, or get back to the station, and we started getting images that especially our younger guys hadn’t experienced and you need some help getting over it, learning from it.”

The longer they stay in this department, the chief told his fellow firefighters, “you’re gonna learn we’re kinda like — not kinda — we’re a whole lot like brothers. We can fuss at each other, we can laugh at each other and joke about each other and criticize each other, but nobody else better!”

Collins said he looks forward to the coming years “to look out here and see the rookies and the trainees and the less experienced people mature and get to the point where they are the veteran firefighters and taking over and keeping this department growing and doing its best.”

“Let me say again that you as members are the reason we’ve been able to accomplish so much,” he said. “It’s because of your dedication to this department and the citizens we serve, your loyalty to your department and each other, the effort you put forth to see that every call is answered, the love you show for helping your fellow man and your pride in a job well done, that Whitfield County is a department we can all be proud of. It’s a privilege being able to work alongside you, and I look forward to another safe and progressive year.”

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