Photo by Sarah Foley
Children meet in the streets and on playing fields. Families walk to the neighborhood grocery on sunlit trails.
Two united communities work together as one across state lines, to create one of the lowest crime rates in Georgia and Tennessee.
Dedicated police and fire departments offer 24/7 protection for every citizen in our community.
Ordinary Men; Extraordinary Service
On September 22, Georgia’s Secretary of State Brian Kemp will honor all Lookout Mountain, Ga., first responders at a Town Hall Meeting. While staff officers are the backbone of the department, they rely on a very unique group of residents to keep our community safe.
It takes a special person to voluntarily run into a burning building. But what many don’t realize is nearly 70 percent of all firefighters in this country are truly volunteers. Station 1 on Lookout Mountain, Ga., is one of many departments that operate with a handful of committed residents.
Our community needs to know how special these people are – all these young husbands and fathers who get up in the middle of the night to save their neighbors…it’s remarkable.
"Our community needs to know how special these people are – all these young husbands and fathers who get up in the middle of the night to save their neighbors…it’s remarkable,” says Ruth Oehmig, who experienced their services first hand when a gas mane explosion gutted her restaurant in May 2014.
“I was really overwhelmed by how exceptional everyone was – staff and volunteer, Georgia and Tennessee,” she recalls. “Their prompt action really saved the entire block.”
Georgia’s fire and police department employs seven officers, with two on duty at all times. Pulling 48-hour shifts, they work two 24-hour shifts – 12 as police and 12 “off” where they sleep at the station but remain on call as firefighters. During emergencies, the mean and lean operation depends on volunteers for backup.
Volunteer firemen don’t take shifts. They’re given alphanumeric pagers and respond as they are able (not as convenient). Most leave their turnout gear in their cars and have left work, church or school for calls. The majority have full-time jobs and families – many with young children.
It can be tough on the family,” admits Jeff Hilkert, a volunteer since 2000 who also serves as deputy fire chief and oversees volunteer training. “I have a one month old and 22 month old, and there are times my wife needs me and a call comes in. I tell her, ‘I’ve got to go because what if nobody else does?’
Interestingly, Hilkert is one of two volunteers who live in Tennessee (the other is Ben Grizzell). Both Tennessee and Georgia practice mutual aid, and the two departments are basically a hand in glove operation.
To us there’s no Georgia or Tennessee side – it’s Lookout Mountain when there’s an emergency.
“To us there’s no Georgia or Tennessee side – it’s Lookout Mountain when there’s an emergency,” says Benjamin Grizzell, who volunteered 3 years ago. “We all work really well together. The two on-duty officers in Georgia are basically the backbone of our operation. But there’s times when we can get overwhelmed quickly, and it’s always great to see the Tennessee guys rolling up to the scene.”
Nearly every firefighter on Lookout Mountain responded to the 3 a.m. call to Café on the Corner. Jeremy McDowell remembers arriving on the scene, watching flames shoot nearly 20 feet from the back of the building. With water already flowing outside, he and three others went inside with hoses to try and knock down the flames from another angle.
"As soon as we stepped inside the smoke was so thick I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face,” he recalls. “Chief Randy Bowdon ordered us out shortly after because they were afraid the roof might collapse.
Crews fought the blaze for more than three hours, spraying roughly 1,300 gallons of water per minute from the Tennessee ladder truck. Until a gas leak is contained, you work to contain the blaze without putting it out to avoid the risk of a secondary explosion. Finally a gas company technician arrived, and firefighters created a cool zone with their hoses so he could reach the shut off valve.
Thankfully fires are relatively infrequent on Lookout Mountain. The department averages 1-3 calls per month, including medical and other emergencies. But the Café wasn’t the department’s first gas main fire.
A volunteer for 20 years, Thompson Pettway remembers being called to the Mountain Market fire in 2007. Lasting almost 12 hours, it took crews four hours to find the shut off valve, at one point digging up the road to try and find the main line. With 30-foot flames ravaging the building, crews fought to keep the blaze from igniting the fuel tanks of the gas station next door.
The fire was so hot it melted part of the fire truck parked out front,” he recalls. “At one point I was standing between the fire and the gas tanks where the vent pipes come up, working to keep the flames back. That was definitely a gut check.
While these situations might sound terrifying to outsiders, none of them would call their job frightening.
We drill and practice so much; safety is the name of the game,” says Frank Youmans. “This is not a cowboy operation. We don’t move without our fellow firefighters and we’re always working as a team to help one another.
Volunteering a little over two years ago, Frank Youmans second fire ever was at the Café. Even so, as third or fourth on the scene he was part of the team that went inside. Later he climbed the ladder truck to help fight the blaze from above.
Every Monday from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., volunteers meet at the Fire Hall for training. They go over scenarios, do drills and simulations. While experience levels differ, everyone is prepared. In fact all firefighters must study and pass the Georgia state exam before they ever go on a call.
We have so much training, you’re never really scared in the moment – you’re just focused on what you need to do,” says Kevin Leckenby, a volunteer for 10-plus years. “But as an officer, I’m always the most anxious when I point to a friend and tell him to go into a burning building.
While none say it’s scary, they would never call it easy. Fighting a fire is mentally and physically exhausting. The gear alone weighs almost 30 pounds, and water pressure in the hoses requires strength to keep steady. The night of the Café fire, Youmans went home around 6:30 a.m., showered and boarded a plane for work.
And nothing can prepare you for the heat. “The movies don’t do it justice,” says Leckenby. “The heat coming out of it – you can feel your equipment working. It’s kind of like being in an oven in a heavy coat and pants.”
Despite the challenges, every volunteer signs up out of a duty they feel toward helping their neighbor. It also allows them to use skills they otherwise wouldn’t in their everyday lives.
Shortly after joining we had the opportunity to use a house for fire training,” recalls 13-year volunteer and Lieutenant Mike Chalverus. “It wasn't until I was chopping a hole in the roof of that house to ventilate the smoke and heat from the fire below that I knew I enjoyed doing it.
Many are asked by friends already on the department, but it’s not always an easy decision.
When I was asked my first response was no,” recalls McDowell. “But after I thought about it, I told my wife I didn’t want any of my neighbors’ houses to burn down and know I could’ve helped. My first response was to a house two doors down.
Emergencies aren’t just fires. Several volunteers are trained EMRs and help with medical calls. They’ve helped clear downed trees after storms and rescue people on icy roads. They even performed an Amber Alert drill last week, practicing ground search protocol.
“We really just try to access the needs of the community and help fill the void any way we can,” says Hilkert.
In addition to the pager, several volunteers have a phone app so they can let others know if they can respond (“R) or not (“UR,” or unable to respond). A few years ago, Grizzell had just picked up his 2-year-old daughter from preschool when a call came in. He originally responded “UR” but then noticed everyone else had too. He put her in the car seat and went to the scene.
“When I got there I asked one of the neighbors standing in the yard if she would watch my daughter,” smiles Grizzell. “She asked ‘Why?’ and I pulled out my gear and said, ‘Because I need to go help with this fire.’”
His daughter watched a while from a safe distance with the neighbor then ended up playing at a schoolmate’s house a few doors down until her dad was done.
“That’s what is so great about this community – I knew I could trust a virtual stranger to help me and that my daughter would be totally safe,” he says.
In a way, the impromptu babysitter isn’t unlike the men who offer to fight fires. In the end, it’s about neighbors helping neighbors any way they are able.