Bryan County Emergency Services Director Freddy Howell was getting a little concerned about the traffic on Highway 144, so he bought a boat.
The Waycross native was a long-time Harley-Davidson rider, but when the morning and afternoon commute along the main road through the south end of the county got busier than he liked, he switched hobbies and took to the local waterways.
He found the traffic more to his liking.
Howell has spent the bulk of his adult life in the firefighting business.
"I’ve done this work for 33 years. I love this work. I like helping people and that is how I look at this profession," Howell said. "Every day when I get up, I have another opportunity to go out and help someone."
Howell’s firefighting journey has taken him all over the state, from Waycross to King’s Bay to, finally, Richmond Hill.
It wasn’t his childhood dream.
"I had no idea that’s what I was going to wind up doing. When I graduated from high school, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do," he said. "My mom and dad wanted me to go to college, but I just wanted to go to work. I was looking for a job and saw the ad in the newspaper. I applied and got the job. ... I fell I love with it."
Howell didn’t forget his parents’ push for college. He picked up two degrees along the way.
"I finally got my associate’s degree in fire science from Savannah Tech in the early 1990s, and then I went to Columbia Southern University and got my bachelor’s degree, also in fire science."
Howell then set a career path that took him from firefighter to the director of BCES.
He said unlike when he started in the business, most firefighters today have college degrees, many through online colleges they attend on days off, even though many firefighters supplement their incomes by working on their days off.
He, too, has worked part-time jobs while climbing the firefighter ladder.
"I worked on my days off. I owned a business. I had a screen printing and sign shop. But firefighting was my main business," he said happily.
"Helping people is what gets most people in the firefighting business. The reward in firefighting isn’t monetary ... When you save somebody’s life and help somebody, it’s the best feeling on the world."
The director also said firefighting is a dangerous profession.
"One of the biggest challenges we face is that cancer is running rampant in the fire service business. We have found out that what we’ve been going into – this smoke and other carcinogenic environment – is catching up with us now. The No. 1 killer of firefighters today – and I’m not talking about in the line of duty – is from cancer."
Howell said it is getting more difficult finding firefighters, likely because of the health hazards and low pay.
He said the emergency services in Bryan County are considered a combination department because it has volunteer and paid firefighters.
"We also run ambulances and run EMS through the entire county. All our people are cross-trained. They can go from a firetruck to an ambulance if they have to. We have about 60 full-time staff and about 20 volunteers."
Most of his department’s calls, surprisingly, are not to fires but for EMS, which continue to increase.
"We spend about 80 percent responding to medical calls."
Howell said he is eligible for retirement in May and could see himself in another career. But his commitment to Bryan County and the people who work with him will keep him on the job until he’s satisfied his department has reached the level he knows it can.
"When I got to Bryan County, I knew it was going to be a challenge. We had some older equipment and stations. Our staffing levels were low. And I don’t want to leave until I see a new headquarters built, some additional new equipment – the county government has done a great job in updating and modernizing the department – and more staff. So it might be a while," he said.
"We’re in the process of getting four new tankers and have built two new stations, so we’ve come a long way. We’ve also just purchased two new fire pumpers. All this new equipment will help lower the county’s insurance services office rating, which will ultimately lower people’s homeowner’s insurance. That’s one of our goals, too."
During his downtime, he said he likes to get on the water.
"I like to get on my boat and go to St. Catherines or Ossabaw Island with my wife, Kathryn. I just like to get away. I just love being on the water."
Howell and Kathryn are the parents of Danielle, 30, and James, 17.
"I also love sports. It doesn’t matter which. Baseball, basketball, it really doesn’t matter."
He counts the Falcons and Jaguars as two of his favorite professional teams and the Dawgs his favorite college team.
For Howell, another great feeling was jumping on one of the numerous motorcycles he’s owned through the years and hitting the open road.
"I owned many Harley’s over the years. I love riding motorcycles but the traffic is always increasing so I thought I’d get on the water with my boat where it’s a little slower."
Howell also likes to call Wildcat football, baseball and basketball games and is part owner of Low Country Radio.
"When I got here, my son played football, and I found that there wasn’t any way to keep up with the games when they were playing away games. There was no radio station covering them. I thought we have this big football team in a growing community and we don’t have a radio station covering them," he said.
"So, I decided that I would start Low Country. I originally stated it up in my house."
Howell said he can broadcast worldwide and Wildcat games have been heard by soldiers in Afghanistan.
"We’re always trying to get sponsors to help financially. I’ve been paying for it out of my pocket. It’s a great resource for the community so we’re always looking for sponsors."
People or businesses looking to become sponsors on Low Country Radio can call 912-674-5481 or go to their website, lowcountryradio.com.
After he moved here Howell found his relatives had a long presence in the county.
"In the 1800s, Obediah Barber killed a bear with his bare hands while in Waycross. He was my third great-grandfather and was something of a legend in that area then," Howell said. "I found out through a little research when I moved here that he and other relatives of mine are buried in Bryan County, and their graves are in Black Creek Church Cemetery."
Obediah would be pleased his great-great-great-grandson wound up with his EMS office just a miles from where the elder Barber is buried.