Bryan County Emergency Services (BCES) department is bustling these days, and as long as the county’s growth continues its upward trajectory, the department has no plans to slow down any time soon.
The agency delivers a full range of emergency services – including fire prevention and education, emergency medical services and fire suppression – to almost 40,000 citizens and covers over 450 square miles.
BCES currently has 10 emergency service stations throughout the county, and they operate with six ambulances staffed with emergency medical service personnel.
Bryan County has made the department one of its highest priorities, as the services provided by EMS are usually life-saving and of utmost importance. Since 2013, the BCES department has been allocated 95 percent more funds for personnel in order to ensure that the county is able to attract and retain quality employees. With this support, the ranks have grown from around 45 to over 70 highly qualified employees.
The county also knows that this is a trend that must continue as population increases.
The department, run by Chief Freddy Howell, now has over 70 employees who respond from strategically locatedstations through the county, routinely responding to EMS calls, residential and commercial structure fires, brush fires, vehicle accidents and a variety of other types of emergencies.
All BCES’s employees are cross trained as both firefighter/ EMTs and/or paramedics. Rest assured that each responder is cross-trained and has the equipment necessary to swiftly and efficiently handle the emergency. Additionally, all the department’s response vehicles carry emergency medical equipment and supplies.
Howell, who began as chief on Dec. 1, 2012, believes the key to keeping the county safe is to prevent his department’s services from being needed in the first place. For that reason, he puts a special emphasis on fire prevention, education and outreach efforts. And it’s working.
“Not too long ago, someone commented to me that I’ve been lucky because ever since I’ve been around, the fires seem to have stopped. But that’s not luck,” Howell said. “We do a lot locally to teach folks how to prevent fires and just to be safer in general.”
The EMS division of BCES has implemented a puppet program and built a portable set so they can periodically perform shows at elementary schools throughout the county. For older students, an emergency medical responder program at the high schools provides education and even career opportunities. Those who go through the program graduate as certified medical responders. The program always concludes at the end of the year with an exercise in which the students deal with a staged mass casualty, attending to the scene as if it were a real emergency situation. Howell is also trying to establish a firefighter/EMS program in local schools, which would give a head start to young people looking to enter the profession.
Howell has seen, firsthand, the positive effects that result from funneling impactful messaging to kids in a format they understand and appreciate. He is actually trained as a professional clown, which has come in handy when relating to children and helping them grasp the concepts of safety and fire prevention. Howell used to perform clown routines more frequently, but now he only does it once per year – to entertain the children of fallen firefighters at the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial Weekend, which he attends every year in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Howell also previously instructed and trained other firefighters on how to teach fire prevention and safety to children through “clowning.”
Howell, who came to Bryan County after serving as fire chief at Kings Bay Naval Submarine base, still enjoys working with children, but he mostly stays busy running Bryan County’s Emergency Services Department. In addition to suppressing fires, running medical calls and responding to vehicle accidents, the BCES employees are often tackling other duties, such as hosting and attending community events, where they interact with area residents and conducting outreach campaigns.
“I don’t go out on calls that often. If it’s a major incident, I’ll go, like a very serious injury or fatality,” Howell said. “But I always listen to the radio and try to respond just to let the team know that I know what’s going on. They know I’m in the loop.”
The chief acknowledges that it’s tough at times to find and hire qualified emergency services employees, as the job is demanding and time-consuming. BCES staffers work 24 hours on shift, and then have 48 hours off. Their days off vary from week to week, and they’re expected to work holidays.
When they are on duty, firefighter/EMT’s keep plenty busy in between calls.
“When they first get to work, they need to check all the equipment every day. We test it and document our maintenance checks, which helps keepeffectiveness high for everyone. Then, there’s cleaning the station, training and staying on top of all the new developments,” Howell said. “We’re fire and EMS, so we have to train on all the new concepts that EMS is coming out with and stay abreast of all the new technology that fire side is coming out with. There is no down time.”
Howell remembers his early days, when emergency services employees were a bit more relaxed with their own safety.
“When I first started, we’d hang off the back of the truck on our way to calls! Didn’t think anything of it,” he said with a laugh. “It has changed so much.”
Combining fire protection and emergency medical response has been one of the keys to success for Bryan County Emergency Services as well as other departments around the country. The department’s employees routinely work traffic accidents, cardiac emergencies, medical emergencies, trauma and other assist-type calls. The agency’s six Advanced Life Support (ALS) ambulances are staffed with highly trained certified EMTs or paramedics and stocked with equipment such as oxygen, pulse oximeters and advanced cardiac monitoring systems. The department’s fire engines also carry sufficient medical supplies and equipment to provide first-responder care. These vehicles are often seen at emergency sites, providing emergency medical care until an ambulance arrives.
In addition to ever-evolving training techniques and concepts, the gear used by the department has changed as the fires they fight have become more dangerous. Thanks to lightweight construction and houses stocked with products and goods created using manmade synthetics, houses burn much faster and hotter than they did decades ago. Thus, firefighter gear has become more flame-resistant and self-contained. Bryan County’s EMS department steadfastly keeps current on safety requirements and has recently procured some new units that help operations run smoothly.
“We have several new ambulances and three brand-new Hendrickson Mobile Equipment fire apparatuses with custom cabs – lots of safety-related bells and whistles on them,” Howell said. “We’re also building a new Station 1; we’ve already built Station 10; we’re rebuilding Station 2; we’re adding on to Station 9; and we have four new tankers that arrived in July.”
The new tankers can each carry 3,000 gallons of water.
When a fire breaks out and there are no hydrants nearby, the tankers will transport water to the vehicles at the scene of the fire. The tankers empty water into a drop tank on site, similar to a swimming pool.
Pumper trucks then take that water and hose it onto the fire, pumping 1,250 gallons per minute. The tankers go back to retrieve more water and continue to repeat the process until the fire is out. However, if firefighters are working a blaze where they can access a hydrant, that “refill routine” is unnecessary.
In most unincorporated areas of the county, though, tankers are essential as pumpers can only carry 1,000 gallons. Having available tankers helps to lower the county’s ISO rating which, in turn, lowers everyone’s insurance, according to Howell.
Bryan County’s Emergency Services department is also implementing a few new things. They recently launched a pilot program with a search-andrescue dog. The new furry, four-legged team member is a German shepherd named Jasper, and his handler is firefighter Sarah Simon. She procured him at no charge to the county, and he’s already been through obedience school. Simon will continue Jasper’s training.
BCES also now has three boats – a john boat to use in the rivers that wind through the north end of the county, and two boats for the south end, all of which were procured through a Georgia forestry auction.
“One of the south end boats is a major boat. We can run it out to anywhere, like Ossabaw Island or St. Catherine’s. Not too long ago, actually, a couple went kayaking and the male kayaker started having heart trouble, which he’d experienced in the past. They called 911 but didn’t know where they were.
They told us where they’d put in their kayaks and which way they were going, so we ran some calculations and basically had to figure out where to find him. Our guys got the boat out to him and got him to a hospital. He’s OK,” Howell said.
The department has several people going through scuba rescue training as they try to establish an underwater recovery team. The department already has a few certified rescue divers, but more are required. Plus, once the team is up and running, they can assist first responders in neighboring counties when needed.
And, in Chief Howell’s opinion, neighbors and nearby communities are pretty important. As a child, he lived in Waycross and spent many years of his youth at his family’s place in Harriet’s Bluff. He was educated in Georgia and spent 20 years employed with the Waycross Fire Department. Howell has always lived in the Southeastern United States, and his family calls it home as well. The chief and his wife, Kathryn, have a daughter, Danielle, who is married and has a 1-year-old son of her own. The Howells’ son, James, just graduated high school and plans to enlist in the military. In addition to spending time with his family, Howell loves sports, especially football and baseball, and enjoys fishing, boating and being on the water. In fact, Bryan County’s coastal location is one of the many appealing things that drew him to the area. And now, years later, he’s still glad he’s here.
“My team and I, we love this community. We try to be involved in it. Most of us all live here, work here, stay here and play here, so we are proud of it and of the work we do. We want to showcase that pride and support,” Howell said. “So, we do all we can to serve our residents, keep them safe and take care of this county.”