Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories focusing on the men and women of Blount County’s smaller emergency departments, and the challenges they face in keeping those departments in operation. This week’s featured department is Greenback Volunteer Fire Department.
Greenback Volunteer Fire Department has come a long way since it was first established in an old filling station in 1963, and GVFD Chief Ronnie Lett has seen most of the department’s evolution first-hand.
Lett and his father, Jack Lett, took the helm at GVFD in 1974, as assistant and chief respectively, and Lett assumed the chief’s position himself in 2004. “We had one truck and 10 firefighters, and that was on a good day,” he says of those early years.
Today, the department has three stations, 29 vehicles, and an annual budget that is roughly — no joke — 300 times larger than it was when the Letts took the reins in ‘74.
Having been with the station for so long, Lett has a rare perspective on the challenges of operating a small community fire department, the budgetary struggles and manpower issues and equipment snafus.
A lifelong Greenback resident, Lett remembers the beginnings of GVFD, some years before he became a member of the station himself. “We’d had a number of fires around town,” he says. “And finally, some men in the community decided they needed a fire department, and they went and got ’em a truck.”
The department’s first fire engine was a 1948 Ford with a 1,200-gallon tank and a 250-gallons-per-minute pumper. Those numbers pale in comparison to the relatively high-performance tanks and pumpers the department keeps in its stable today, which have a gpm capacity of 1,000 or more.
The first departmental quarters were located in the aforementioned gas station, before being moved a few years later to a former post office in town — that outpost is preserved in an old black and white photograph that hangs on the wall of GFVD station #1 on Morganton Road.
But when the Letts joined the department more than a decade after its founding — Jack Lett had been a longtime Greenback hardware store owner before getting into the fireman’s game — it was still a struggle to stay abreast of the community’s needs.
Any ‘able’ bodies
“Back then, if there was a fire, you just hoped there were people close by,” Lett says. “You’d take any able bodies to answer the call. And we only answered calls around town, because we didn’t have the capability to answer calls any further out.”
The station budget when Lett came on board was a mere $600 per year, drawn from community subscribers who paid $10 annually.
GVFD today has an annual budget of $175,000 — still mostly off subscriptions, with a little additional funding provided by Blount and Loudon counties.
That’s impressive growth, and Lett remembers all of the milestones along the way. Like the time GVFD purchased its first Class A pumper truck from a small-town department in Swarthmore, Pa., in 1985.
“When I left town, it was 24 below zero here,” Lett recalls. “I got to Pennsylvania, and it was 30 below.”
Lett says he and the Swarthmore firefighters gave the pumper a test run by driving it down to a local creek and chopping a hole in the ice to draw water.
“It took me 16 hours to get back home,” he says. “And when I got back to Greenback, the town was standing full. They thought that truck was the best-looking thing they’d ever seen in their lives.”
He has vivid memories, too, of fighting a massive fire in downtown Lenoir City in 1999 — “It took out a whole block,” Lett says. “There were over 150 people fighting the fire at any given moment, and that went on for 48 hours” — and of a tornado that came through in 2011, keeping he and his men up for more than 36 hours straight.
GVFD handles a surprisingly hefty volume of 750 to 800 calls per year — that includes fires and medical emergencies and water rescues and vehicle extrications, even a few wayward cats in trees. “I reckon we’ll answer just about everything, as long as they call,” Lett says.
But Lett says there are actually fewer fires per capita in Greenback than there were once-upon-a-time. He attributes that decrease to the combination of fewer wood-burning stoves, and better fire prevention — he notes that public education is another important role for GVFD.
“Houses are built better now,” he says. “And we’re in the schools all the time with the kids. That’s where it starts, getting to the kids and having them take it home. Having smoke detectors, having fire escape plans, watching your safety with heaters and appliances. ...”
One thing that hasn’t changed over the decades since GVFD opened its bay doors is the challenge of finding and keeping personnel. “Keeping good quality people, and having enough people to answer calls — those are the biggest challenges for a lot of volunteer departments,” he says.
Right now, GVFD has 35 people on its roster, all of them equipped with two-way radios and pager phones. That sounds like a lot of manpower, Lett says, until you factor in the stressors that chip away at both availability and motivation over time — like the training involved in becoming a volunteer firefighter, which includes 16 hours of orientation followed by firefighter one classes and yearly continuing education classes.
And then there are the rigors and dangers of actually responding to calls, all of it piled on top of the ordinary day-to-day responsibilities of men and women who have day jobs and families apart from GVFD.
“People tend to overload their wagon, and then they don’t have the time to put in,” Lett says. “And remember, they’re doing this for no pay.”
For those reasons, Lett says he is very selective when people seek a volunteer position at GVFD. “What happens sometimes is that somebody comes in and just thinks it’s going to be fun,” he says. “They’ll fill out an application, and then I’ll never see them again.
“If they really want to do it, they’ll come down here every day and bug me about it. I won’t even look at a new application for the first 30 days. I’ve got to see that they want it.”
During a recent review of departmental records, Lett says he estimated that he had personally run on as many as 40,000 calls over his 40-some-odd years of service. And since his retirement from a career as a mail carrier some years back, and his ascension to the chief’s post in 2004, he says the workload has only seemed to increase.
“My wife says I’ve actually been at home less since I retired,” he says with a chuckle.
But despite the grind, and the lack of financial reward, Lett says he doesn’t have any regrets. “I want the people of Greenback to have the very best emergency services we can provide,” he says. “That’s been my goal throughout. “And if I didn’t care about the people of this community, I certainly wouldn’t do this.”