Farmer Givers: 3 Stories of Farmer Firefighters
Rural communities only work because of selfless volunteers like these three farmers, who also happen to be firefighters. Here are the stories of three of those farmer firefighters.
Jon Eller, Farmer and Chief, Shelby Rural Fire Department
Jon Eller doesn’t do many things halfway, including his volunteer fireman role.
The 53-year-old Shelby, Nebraska, farmer joined the fire department in 1990 when he was a beginning farmer. “I was young, I was single, so I said, ‘Why not?’ I enjoyed serving the community,” he says.
Ten years later, he was named chief, and the urge to go the full distance kicked in.
“I decided to also go after the emergency medical technician (EMT) certificate. If I was going to be chief, I was going to be the best one I could be. We’re a rescue service, and I wanted to be able to do rescue jobs,” Eller says.
“Unless you live here, I don’t think people understand the need for volunteers and the good feeling that comes from serving in this way,” he says.
Eller farms about 3,600 acres of irrigated corn and soybeans with his father and brother-in-law.
One of his favorite jobs as fire chief is speaking at the local schools about fire prevention. “Kids see me in town and say, ‘Hey, there’s the fireman!’ I love that. I tell them they can grow up to be one, too,” he says.
At the other end of the spectrum, Eller recruits active and retired farmers to the department and wishes more of them would volunteer. “They can drive trucks and do other things that don’t involve spraying water or going into a burning building,” he says. “In a small town, being a fireman is not just a young person’s job.”
Farmers make particularly good emergency responders, he thinks. They can often be on-site quickly, and they almost instinctively know what to do. “They can run all kinds of equipment. If I was trapped in a combine, I’d want a farmer there to help me get out,” he says.
Being a fireman is not always easy, Eller admits. For one, it takes time from his family and farmwork.
“It’s a small town (780 people) and 80 square miles of rural farmland. I know everyone. I’ve had to deal with the loss of young people and elderly people I’ve known my entire life. That’s really hard, but it’s part of this job,” he says.
He’s seen every kind of emergency you can imagine – from farm accidents to car accidents to animal tramplings. Some have ended tragically.
Then there are other times. “I saved a woman who was in a car accident,” Eller says. “I was only 3 miles away, and I got there quickly. Otherwise, she probably would have died. That’s why it’s so important to recruit in all areas of our district.”
The Shelby Fire Department has 32 members, eight of whom are women. Several are nurses and make up the core of the department’s emergency medical staff. Eller adds, “I’d take recruits right now.”
Some of the calls Eller gets are not as stressful as a fire. “Sometimes, one of our elderly people will call me because a smoke detector is beeping,” he says. “I go and change the battery. That’s part of the job, too. I don’t mind.”
Ron Hampton, Farmer and Chief, Cassville Volunteer Fire Department
In 1999, three of Ron Hampton’s buddies in Cassville, Wisconsin, asked him to ride along to a firefighter training class. Sort of on a whim, he said, “Why not?”
The rest, as they say, is history. The next month, the friends talked the corn and soybean farmer into joining the Cassville Volunteer Fire Department. A couple years after that, he was voted secretary of the unit.
“I started writing grant proposals, and over the years since then, we have received close to $1 million in grants for our department,” Hampton says proudly. They’ve used the money to buy firefighting gear, air packs, training materials, rescue equipment, and a brush truck.
“It is a Ford F350 4×4 crew cab with a 250-gallon water tank, and it’s about the only way to get off-road into a cornfield, for instance, for a combine fire,” he says.
The grant-writing success set Hampton up to be voted fire chief (still a volunteer position) just a year ago. He continues to farm about 1,100 acres with his brother, Randy, and his dad, Stan.
The Cassville VFD has 38 members and serves a 54-square-mile area, including the 4,000 residents of Cassville along the Mississippi River. “Our roster is capped at 40, so it would look like we’re in pretty good shape,” says Hampton. “The problem is, a lot of them are getting a little older. They’d step out now if we had a replacement. As I look out 10 years, it’s a little scary.”
To other farmers, he says, “Don’t assume there are enough people serving in these volunteer roles in your community. About 95% of volunteer services need more people. It’s a very serious problem.”
Most days, he says, his own department can barely pull together enough drivers for the rigs.
“A lot of our guys have their gear with them at work, so if we get a call, they go straight to the fire. Then we assess who we have and go from there,” he says.
“That’s just the way it works in rural America. I don’t know of many places where the population is growing, so you deal with that as best you can,” he says.
Five years ago, Hampton added to his personal résumé by becoming an emergency service first responder. “I’m not an EMT, but I can ride along with an EMT and be the assistant,” he says.
Since becoming chief, Hampton says the hardest thing he’s had to deal with was not a fire but a flood just last summer.
“We had a 14-inch rain one night, with flooded homes, stranded cars, and propane tanks floating down the streets,” he says. “I was stranded on one side of town and directed my volunteer team by radio. There were four homes completely flooded out, and we rescued 15 people with boats, but there was no loss of life.
“I’ve never been more proud of my guys. They gave up many hours of their time helping people get through it and the cleanup,” he says.
Billy Tidwell, Farmer and Chief, Ralls Volunteer Fire Department
Billy Tidwell joined the Ralls (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department in 2001, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the emergency work became a more passionate calling for him.
That was when the young cotton farmer watched his dad, a farmer and aerial crops sprayer, experience a plane malfunction, crash, and die in front of his eyes.
“I was the first one there, and that, of course, impacted me greatly,” says Tidwell. “We got out of the crop-spraying business and downsized the farm from 20,000 acres to 1,200.”
His biggest response was to get a lot more involved in emergency preparedness. “I trained to be a firefighter and firefighter teacher, and then to be an intermediate EMT,” says Tidwell. “I’ve done all the training to be a paramedic, but I’ve chosen not to get the actual certification.”
Eventually, he moved up to be fire chief in the Ralls VFD, which has 17 members and covers about 345 square miles east of Lubbock. He’s so consumed by emergency response activities that he now sits on several Texas firefighter boards, helping to train and certify other firefighters.
More than once over the last several years, Tidwell, now 39 years old, has put his own life on the line. “I’ve been in burning buildings trying to get to the source of a fire. I’ve also been on many wildfire calls,” he says. “One time, a CRP field not far from our farm caught fire. I jumped on our big tractor and went over and started plowing a firebreak in front of the flames.”
While last spring was bad for wildfires across the Texas panhandle, Tidwell remembers 2011 as worse.
“It was very hot and dry, and at one time it seemed like half of Texas was on fire. We lost over a million acres in my county and those around it,” he says.
He averages 25 to 30 hours a week – all volunteer – fulfilling firefighter and emergency responder responsibilities.
“It gives me more opportunities and learning experiences than anything else I’ve ever done,” Tidwell says in defense of the time commitment. “It’s a way to give something back to the community that raised me.”
Tidwell wishes more farmers would join local fire departments. “You see things out in the country before anyone else,” he says. “You could be the first one on-site for a fire or some other tragedy, and maybe save a life. Save just one, and that’s worth more than all the gold in the world!” he says.