District 8 Volunteers are inmates

June 3, 2011 • Local News

The dramatic increase in fire calls has culminated in an intense strain on departments and higher than normal pressure on [auth] the county’s volunteer fleet. Members of the county’s District 8 Volunteer Fire Department say firefighters feel a mix of emotions while on the frontline.

“When you’re in front of that fire, you’re scared and you’re excited all at one time,” said Jason Lord, a lieutenant with the department. Lord is a member of a select crew who shares a common bond and commitment with other county firefighters.

He’s a volunteer battling blazes in an exceptional year that has culminated in a dramatic spike in the number of fires ripping through Chaves County.

Where Lord’s department of about 20 members differs, is that it’s comprised of Roswell Correctional Center prison inmates. District 8 was established in 1996 and is the only county volunteer department located on correctional facility grounds.

Firefighters who meet certain criteria are screened and approved to respond outside of the facility and assist in protecting the community. “These guys are held to a high standard … (and) as long as their hearts are in the right place, that’s what I look for,” said Barry Wilkenson, the station’s chief and one of a handful of prison administrators who manage the department.

“They get something out of it and the county gets something out of it,” he said.

Wilkenson says passion among his crew is not hard to find and that 98 percent of the men who are accepted into the program stay with it.

“Once you get your first fire you’re hooked and it’s in your blood.” The department has responded to 56 calls since January — more than they had in all of 2010. Just like other county departments, the spike in calls equates to more danger.

“Being that close to the fire and feeling the heat, you’re scared, you’re excited — there are so many things going through your head,” Lord said.

“All I know is when you’re going to a fire and you know structures are threatened, all you’re thinking about is how you’re going to save those structures.” In addition to being a lieutenant with the station, which entails looking after and managing his crew, Lord is the driver of one the of department’s engines.

He works alongside of and has the responsibility of ensuring the safety of other firefighters like Lt. Micah Henry. “We’re off road quite a bit (and I’m always) trying to keep watch for the driver,” said Henry, joking that the key to keeping safe is to “watch that bump” in the terrain.

However, the terrain is hardly the only thing that Henry and his counterparts across the county need to be mindful of in order to stay on their toes and keep safe.

“It’s intense. You can’t predict what (a fire) is going to do,” he said. “Chasing the head of the fire is probably the most intense part. … A lot of times it’s stressful.” Despite joining the department while having to wear a bright orange prison-issue shirt under their gear, the men opted for the same task and responsibilities as their counterparts on the other side of the prison walls.

“We fight fires side by side with them,” Wilkenson said.

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One Response to District 8 Volunteers are inmates

  1. lynchmob says:

    Nice article Matt, but you must spell names correctly. The man in charge is Barry Wilkinson, not Wilkerson.

    Misspells and grammatical errors take away from your credibility and the newspaper’s.

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