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Four firefighters have logged half-century of service

by Jeff Haldiman | December 19, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

In May 1969, a group of individuals who saw a need for fire protection south of Jefferson City formed the Cole County Volunteer Fire Department. They had one fire engine to begin with and a few dedicated firefighters.

And from there, the dream grew.

In 1993, voters approved going from a volunteer department to a tax-supported fire protection district.

In November 2018, voters in the district approved a 27-cent tax increase to pay for new equipment and trucks that began arriving in 2020.

Today, the district covers 220 square miles in three different counties (Cole, Osage and Miller) with seven fire stations and 35 members on the fire service.

Currently, the district has four members who have 50-plus years of firefighting service: Donnie Braun, Gary Smith, Wayne Hammann and Steve Cearlock.

In 2018, Braun submitted his resignation as chief. Braun, who currently serves on the district board, was one of the original members of what was then called the Cole County Volunteer Fire Department that was established in 1969.

"When we started, we had one pumper truck and acquired a tanker truck a few years later," Braun said. "We covered 100 square miles back then, trained with Jefferson City firefighters, and donations had to be given to equip us."

Braun said they had to sell memberships to keep the service going in the early years.

"At one point, we only had two or three hundred dollars in the bank, and we had to run eight or nine months with that," Braun said. "I put some money of my own in to keep gas in the truck."

Gary Smith came to the district a year after Braun in 1970. He too is retired from the active fire department, but still serves on the district board.

Smith said he wasn't looking to become a firefighter when he joined.

"I was just asked by one of the guys who was on the department, and that's how I got started," Smith said.

"I don't know exactly why I've stuck around other than it grows on you bad, or good, whatever you want to call it," Smith said with a laugh. "It's a big family. We've got a lot of good people, and I just simply enjoy it."

In looking back, Smith said the fire district has come a long way.

"Our first station was off of Route C, and the firefighters and volunteers helped put that one up," Smith said. "We called that group the Faithful 8 that got that station built. Things really took off when we became a district in 1993."

Smith said even though there weren't many serving on the district in the early years, they worked well together and became an extended family.

"We could only do so much with one truck and 500 gallons of water," Smith said. "That didn't last long, though, because we came up with more equipment. We learned a lot."

Thanks to the voters approving the increase in 2018, the district will have equipment that is less than 10 years old over the next few years.

Hammann is the current fire chief of the district, a retired assistant chief with the Jefferson City Fire Department with 50 years of service on the district.

"The younger generation of volunteers is really energetic, dedicated and hard working," Hammann said. "The support we get from the citizens is unbelievable. It was difficult in the early years, but we had good camaraderie among the guys.

"I'm not bragging, but I think we're one of the best volunteer departments around," Hammann said.

"Yeah, we're braggin'," Smith laughed.

"The guys now are forming committees to be involved in making the trucks that will serve the district in the future," said Cearlock, who serves as district public information officer. He began as a firefighter with the Ballwin Fire Protection District in 1970.

The district has 32 different types of vehicles, such as engines, tankers and brush trucks.

"The support we get from our families can't be underestimated," Hammann added.

"When you leave when the tones go out, it could be a holiday or a birthday, you have to go no matter what," Cearlock said. "I remember a Christmas Eve when we had to go to a structure fire in Apache Flats, and it was an all-nighter, and everybody had to be called out."

Hammann said they used to have a lot of large fires because of a large amount of older buildings in the district.

"Once those buildings caught fire, they went to the ground," Hammann said. "We didn't have the water supply and (we had) limited manpower to fight those."

A fire that sticks in Hammann's mind occurred several years ago at what is now the Jefferson City Jaycees Fairgrounds.

"At that time, they were boarding horses, and we lost several of those animals," Hammann said. "It was a big loss, because people were attached to those horses."

In the more than 50 years the district has been in existence, Hammann said they've only had two fires where fatalities occurred, and those occurred in the last five years.

Over the last several years, responding to motor vehicle crashes has become the majority of their calls for service.

"With U.S. 54 very busy during the summer, we'll run 75-80 percent of our calls on that highway," Hammann said. "It's nothing to have two to three accidents in just one day. When we have winter storms, we'll get 10-12 calls in a day for people sliding off 54."

Braun, Smith, Hammann and Cearlock said they are still looking for more residents to become the next generation of firefighters in the district. They added it's not easy to be a firefighter due to the amount of training that is required.

"It's hard for the younger generation to give up the amount of time that training takes," Hammann said. "You have to be away from your family and your job, but we do have some good dedicated people right now. We just wish there'd be more because, us old guys, we're not going to be around much longer."

So Hammann was asked, "How much longer will you continue to do this?"

"I enjoy doing what I'm doing," Hammann said. "I think the best answer was when I worked for Jefferson City, and they asked me when I was going to retire, I said, 'When I come in, and it's not fun any more, I'm going to retire."

While Smith retired from active duty, he said he plans to help however he can, whether that be on the board or in some other way.

"We changed our structure to where the board doesn't run the department, that's now on the chief, and that took a lot of burden away," Smith laughed. "I didn't think I'd be able to walk away from working out there. But I've got to admit that was great. I enjoyed what I did, and I'm so glad to see what's happening because this department is really growing."

The four veterans still look back to the times when they literally flew by the seat of their pants to respond to emergencies.

Cearlock said he could remember in the early days of the district where firemen would have to put on their gear on the fire truck as they were headed to a call.

"We have gotten smarter about things, haven't we? " Smith laughed.

Print Headline: Four firefighters have logged half-century of service

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