Volunteers really make a difference

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Last Saturday, the city of Columbiana was the site of one of the largest structure fires in Shelby County in about 40 years.

We have one of the finest fire departments around, but it was far too large for any firefighters, volunteer or otherwise, to tackle alone.

Thirteen – that’s right, 13 – sister fire departments responded to our requests for assistance. Those of us who work with firefighters know that each fire department has a strong pride in its own capabilities and personnel, and usually that pride leads to rivalry between other fire departments.

Every responding unit left those rivalries at their stations and quickly became an essential part of an incredibly professional and effective team. I watched firefighters, both men and women, attack a completely involved building that housed known and unknown risks of explosion and hazardous materials with a resolve that pushed some past their limits.

Many of those required medical treatments and were treated at the scene, spending only moments receiving oxygen and intravenous liquids and then choosing to rejoin fellow firefighters in the attack.

I’ve been a part of about a half-dozen military operations in my career, and I’m always impressed when coordination, leadership and focus on the mission lead to success. I can honestly say that what I witnessed Saturday embodied the finest parts of any joint operation I’ve ever seen.

The leadership shown by the chiefs and officers of all the responding fire departments was much of the reason that no serious injuries or greater loss of property occurred. Orders and directives were given and taken with confidence and urgency, and I observed that every firefighter executed each action in a manner that emphasized a unity of effort, a regard for the safety of others and a &uot;mission first&uot; attitude.

The vast majority of firefighters who put our city’s safety above their own were volunteers. Some people may have thought there is a noticeable gap between the professionalism and performance of volunteers compared to men and women who fight fires for a living. Anyone who believes there is, however, should have seen what dozens of people and I saw. Believe me, there was no gap.

Now let me tell you about the extraordinary efforts of the support personnel on the scene. From the first minutes that the first fire engine responded, people appeared from nowhere to assist the firefighters.

Southeast Shelby Rescue, families and friends of the firefighters and private citizens immediately and without being asked, began the logistical task of donating and distributing water and refreshments to the firefighters.

Golf carts, all-terrain vehicles and personally owned vehicles circulated the perimeter of the fire trying to insure that every firefighter stayed hydrated and alert.

Local baseball and softball leagues donated cases of water and sports drinks for the cause. Wal-Mart, in Calera, donated bread and sandwich &uot;fixings&uot; for what would turn out to be a nine-hour event. Our local supermarket, Piggly Wiggly, went far beyond the call of duty and donated bag after bag of ice, hundreds of bottles of water, cases of cookies, bananas, sodas and much more than I could list here (I’m not surprised because Piggly Wiggly has always supported our community in so many ways).

Churches donated so many items, including a church bus and driver to carry anyone who needed hospital attention.

Councilman Tim Billingsley, our city’s emergency management coordinator, and the Shelby County Emergency Management Agency, performed in an exceptional manner, serving as the liaison between the firefighters, emergency medical services, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, the county Highway Department, our Police Department, Public Works Department, Administrative Department, Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the Red Cross, Salvation Army and me.

Your involvement allowed our firefighters to focus solely on the suppression of the fire. Tom Seale, our Mayor Pro Tem, was invaluable in keeping Tim and me current with the progress of the many simultaneous tasks conducted around the scene.

Sheriff Chris Curry’s deputies worked tirelessly to assist our police officers and dispatchers stay on top of the situation.

Sheriff, I’m proud to call you a friend.

To my fellow mayors, Columbiana is in your debt for your supervision in maintaining such highly skilled fire departments.

We will be there should you ever need us.

I could easily continue this article giving sincere thanks and praise to the many people and organizations that were critical to the success of Saturday, but I would certainly leave out someone and that wouldn’t be good. The important point to remember is that these people were, by and large, volunteers.

Volunteers are what makes or breaks a city. Whether it is in support of a disaster, working in a ballpark or helping to beautify a city, volunteers have always been, and will always be, the key to success. Thank you all.

Most of all, I want to make absolutely sure that the readers know who was ultimately responsible for that day’s accomplishments and, well, every day’s accomplishments.

Father God, we thank you for your mercy and strength, and for the prayers of your people. To You will be the glory. And to Chief Johnny Howard and the other firefighters who put our city before yourselves, Thank you and good job.

Allan Lowe serves as the mayor of Columbiana