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Volunteer firefighters start from scratch
by Kenda Nelson
Apr 08, 2010 | 1785 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Austwell Fire Department disbanded several years ago until 2008, when a band of volunteers started from scratch to rebuild the department. Through the determination of 23 volunteers and the support of area fire departments, Austwell has trained first responders and obtained a fleet of modern, viable firefighting equipment through fundraisers, grants and a lot of hard work. Above, firefighter Kathy Cann takes her turn on the hoses during practice Monday, while Chief David Cann oversees the action and Phil Sawyer mans the controls on the department’s new pumper unit.
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At some time in the last decade, the Austwell Volunteer Fire Department disbanded. Nobody knows with certainty exactly when that happened.

The department was down to one old 1968 brush truck and one firefighter. But giving up on something so important isn’t in the spirit of the close-knit community.

Just over two years ago, Postmaster David Cann and Donnie Denton began talking about reorganizing. The postmaster had an advantage – he gets to see almost everybody in the town each day. The climate in Austwell was perfect for the project. Twenty-three people signed up, 13 are now certified, active firefighters.

“We have an aging community here,” Cann said. “We’re 45 minutes from Refugio and eight from Tivoli. We can’t wait that long for help.”

Starting from scratch isn’t an easy quest, especially with the high cost of fire trucks and firefighting equipment. Giving up wasn’t an option either for the county’s smallest town.

Perched on the Hynes Bay coast, the department wasn’t just needing firefighting apparatus. They wanted sufficient training for first aid in order to save lives.

In just two years, with Cann at the helm as fire chief and Denton as president, the department focused on a set of goals: get the volunteers trained, get enough proper firefighting equipment to do the job, and keep the community involved.

Denton took a grant-writing course from Rindle Wilson, a former county commissioner. A fast learner, Denton’s ability to write winning justifications earned the department a number of highly competitive grants. The latest was received just last week from the Department of Homeland Security – $42,000 that will secure an automatic electric defibrillator, a device that has the potential to restart a failed heart.

Another volunteer, Phil Sawyer, honed in on a much needed pumper fire truck parked on the side of the road in Alice. A new pumper costs more than $200,000 because of its sufficiency in providing high-pressure water-power for intense blazes. A new pumper was out of their budget. Sawyer stopped and inquired.

“Sawyer knows how to operate any kind of machinery, and he can keep anything running,” Cann said.

At the next meeting, the volunteers voted to offer $8,000, which was approximately $8,000 more than the volunteers had in their coffers.

Undaunted, the firefighters planned a fundraiser fish fry. An earlier visit to the county commissioners got the department reinstated, which makes them eligible for county funds.

The Alice department saw how grave was Austwell’s need and how serious the volunteers were so they unexpectedly lowered the cost to $2,000. Firefighters are notorious supporters of other departments, Cann says.

“The neat thing is, they left the hoses, ladders and more than $2,000 in equipment, not to mention the truck,” Denton said.

The truck has low mileage and everything works perfectly; Sawyer and Bob Garner see to it.

However, their newest addition to the fleet is a brand-new, $78,000 brush truck obtained from the Forest Service through a matching grant. Regular fish fries have helped them pay AVFD’s share.

Sawyer also manages to find time to throw out a hook into the water. He furnishes all the fish for the fundraisers and the facility – My Wife’s Restaurant. His restaurant is used for the fundraisers and the monthly meetings – the meeting menu is fish, of course.

The town furnishes the building and electricity, Sheriff Robert Bolcik and Refugio Fire Chief Don Pullin helped them obtain digital radios, EMT supervisor Bob Koonce keeps their crash supplies filled. The list of supporters grows every day, from the nearby plant workers who buy stacks of fish plates to the auxiliary who furnish the side dishes, everyone lends a hand.

“You know what they say: Everybody dies famous in a country town,” Denton says.
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