MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WMOT) -- It’s rare these days for anyone to work for the same organization for 40 years. Rarer still for someone to work that long in an occupation that involves more than its share of risks.
But when he retires in early July, firefighter Billy Vinson will have spent just over four decades serving the people of Murfreesboro.
Vinson is currently the Murfreesboro Fire Department’s training coordinator. WMOT News caught up with him as he was administering annual skills tests to a couple of the department’s 180 plus employees.
Vinson both times and video tapes his firefighters as he puts them through their paces. The ten minute test is designed to insure that all of the department’s employees can perform the basic tasks required by the job.
Vinson has them dragging hoses, climbing ladders while carrying heavy loads, crawling through tight spaces, and even pounding on old tires with a sledge hammer.
THE EVOLUTION OF FIREFIGHTING
To say that Billy Vinson has seen a few changes over his forty year career would be something of an understatement. He said when he joined up in 1974, the job was simple: respond to a fire and douse it with water. Things have gotten a lot more complex in the years since.
“The fire service in Murfreesboro has evolved into more technical things,” Vinson explained, “things like confined space rescue, swift water rescue, collapse rescue situations and medical and vehicle extrications. We didn’t do any of that when I first started.”
Vinson said Murfreesboro’s explosive growth has been challenging for the department. He recalls that when he started the department had three stations. Now there are ten. He thinks there were maybe 30 employees in the mid-70s, now there are nearly 200. He said costs have risen along with the population.
“We just got in a couple of vehicles that we call ‘heavy rescue trucks and they cost about a half a million dollars apiece. When I started we could buy a really nice fire truck for $50,000,” he said.
FIREFIGHTERS BETTER EQUIPPED
A firefighter’s personal gear has changed a lot over the years as well. For example, Vinson said he breathed a lot of smoke early in his career. That’s not the case today.
“If we catch somebody breathing smoke we’ll discipline them for it. There’s no need for it because everybody has their own air pack. They’re breathing from a tank,” he said.
Vinson said firefighting technique has also changed with the times. He notes that today’s firefighters are trained to locate the fire inside a structure quickly and then use as little water as possible to put that fire out. The technique is designed to reduce personal property loss, something that wasn’t always a top priority.
“When I first started, we’d pull up on a burning house and the first thing we’d do is we’d go around and start knockin’ out the windows and kickin’ in the doors. Then we’d go in and just start spraying water all over everywhere,” he remembers.
A PASSION FOR THE JOB
Vinson said one of the most interesting changes he’s seen is in the firefighters themselves. He explains that a lot of firemen his age looked at firefighting as just another job. He notes that for the young men and women he sees joining the department these days, firefighting is a passion.
“They love it. It’s really something that they feel like they were meant to do and nothing’s going to stand in their way of doing it,” he explains.
Firefighter Paul Oliver was one of the men taking the skills test the day WMOT visited Station 6. When his test was complete he told Billy Vinson he was going to be missed.
“We are where we are training wise, because of Billy’s leadership,” Oliver said. “Billy’s always kept it fun. He’s one of the hardest workin’ people up here.”
When asked what advice he would give a rookie joining the department today, firefighter Vinson kept it short and to the point.
“Keep training. Keep learning everything about the job and just try to stay alive. Do the job and stay alive.”