Walk a mile in his shoes: In step with former Alapaha Fire Chief Steve Brown
Retired Alapaha Fire Chief Steve Brown has risked his life on multiple occasions, and his experiences are far from being make believe. He knows what it is like to lose nearly everything. After his family moved to the quaint South Georgia community and settled near the town’s railroad tracks in the early ’60s, one early morning at 4 a.m. his father was awakened by the whistle of an approaching train.
Walking into their small living room, he realized the house was on fire. Escaping with the scant clothes on their back, everyone made it out safely but the house burned down to the ground. Only a TV set with some car keys laying on the top survived. It was the day after Christmas 1966, and Brown was just a nine-year-old kid midway through the fourth grade.
He never forgot that life-altering moment and the generosity displayed towards his family by the citizens of Alapaha. Years later, the young man was working at Gaskins Hardware Store when then-Fire Chief Lincoln Gaskins asked him to join the Alapaha Fire Department because they were short of help. It didn’t take long for the 19-year-old to accept the position.
Over 36 years with the department, Brown eventually succeeded J.H. Moore as fire chief in 2004 and retired in July 2012. Kenneth Griner, Brown’s brother-in-law, holds the leadership position currently. During his volunteer fireman tenure, Brown held down a day job as a general trade craftsman foreman with the Department of Transportation in Tifton.
The down-to-earth individual recalled that Alapaha only had one city truck and an old county white knocker in the ‘70s. The white knocker would get stuck in a muddy field, or someone might nearly run it out of gas. The fire house was a little, dilapidated strand steel building located behind the Alapaha Baptist Church. There were no more than four volunteers, and the department’s budget was miniscule at best. If protective fire suits were available, they were completely worn out.
When a fire occurred, an alarm stationed on the city fire tower alerted everyone — there were no beepers or radio. Brown’s employer Edwin Gaskins told him, “When that fire alarm goes off, you go. Just put down whatever you’re doing and leave.” And that’s exactly what he did.
Fire fighter certification became mandatory during Moore’s tenure in the ’90s. Funds were allotted and vast improvements, including a state-of-the-art fire house and a productive friendship with Freehold, New Jersey— the city donated two fire trucks — emerged. More volunteers were recruited, and the department now boasts 14 members.
One of Brown’s proudest accomplishments was getting the Class 8 fire protection insurance rating for the Town of Alapaha lowered to a Class 6. In other words, residents now have lower home insurance rates.
Fire safety precautions have increased, too. “People are more aware of safety in their homes, so you don’t have as many fires there,” Brown divulged. “In the wintertime fires tend to happen more, as folks are running electric heaters, which can be extremely hazardous. Grass and woods are the most common fire types. A grass fire doesn’t bother me, but when they say it’s a 10–50 or structure fire, that’s my worst day.
“When Lincoln was the fire chief, we had a fire at the Chaparral boat plant. Just a humongous building, and all the county fire departments had to help out. I think that was our worst fire. Later when J.H. took over, there was a terrible fire at Moore Lumber Company that cost them millions of dollars. In the past decade, I had to respond to a poison-related fire at Ken Holyoak’s Fish Hatchery. The PVC pipe emitted the blackest smoke I’ve ever seen. They were all accidental fires.
“If you’re gonna burn something, have a water hose nearby. You wouldn’t believe how many folks never think to do this simple action. Half the time the wind is blowing 100 miles per hour, but folks are determined to do things their way. If you don’t have a burn permit, the penalty will be pretty steep.”
Miraculously, no one in the department has been seriously injured or burned since Brown dedicated his life to helping fire victims.
When he has responded to house fires, people have come up to him and been understandably angry — “You don’t know how it feels to lose your house!” — is a common charge. But after Brown admits that he has walked a mile in their shoes, the victim usually calms down and realizes that someone else has indeed been through the flames just as they have.
Brown has a daughter named Melissa with childhood sweetheart Peggy, who he married in a “big blow-out wedding” at the Alapaha Baptist Church in 1978. Melissa earnestly intended to join the fire department, but the proud papa was concerned for her safety and finally convinced her not to do it.
The most horrific accident Brown responded to happened during the 2006 Alapaha Station Celebration. The Joyce family was on their way home late on a Saturday afternoon after riding in the annual festival with their antique mule-drawn carriage.
In the right lane heading westbound on Highway 82, two tractor trailers were rapidly approaching. The first one saw the carriage in time, but the second unfortunately did not, accidentally clipping the rear side of the wagon and knocking it into the ditch.
While the truck driver was unharmed, all six family members were badly injured. The fire chief arrived on the scene and found bodies lying on both sides of the road. One mule was dead, and a sheriff’s deputy had to kill the other, as it was still kicking in agonizing pain.
Brown tried to assist by putting family patriarch Aubrey on a nearby stretcher. One of the ambulance drivers inquired if there was anyone who could drive the ambulance to Tifton, and the fire chief responded that he could definitely do it. With the ambulance driver in the back, Brown took the wheel as sirens blared. Sadly, the grandfather didn’t make it, and his son and grandson also passed away. His family continues to ride in the celebration as a tribute to their fallen relatives.
If anyone 18 years or older wants to be a volunteer fireman, Brown has some apt advice. “You must possess an inherent desire to help people,” said Brown. “You should be dedicated to the fire department and willing to be on call at all times, night or day.”
Does the former fire chief think the Alapaha Fire Department needs to make any improvements? Absolutely. “The town needs to locate a grant and get the guys a fully equipped, brand-new truck with no miles on it that will hold four people in the cab,” said Brown.
“We could also use some new turn-out gear, which consists of a helmet, jacket, bunker pants, boots, fire fighting gloves, general purpose gloves, eye protection and a Nomex hood” [which protects the portions of the head not covered by the helmet and face mask from the intense heat of a fire].
Brown believes it is not far-fetched that Alapaha will have at least one full-time fireman in the future. Local cities including Tifton already have full-time firemen. “It doesn’t take a bunch of firemen to fight a house fire anymore,” the fire chief revealed. “You might need three or four men — in years past you would see a dozen firefighters.”
As for why he stepped down, Brown reflected, “I felt like somebody else could take over and do a better job than what I was doing. I’m getting older, and my health isn’t what it used to be.” But while his duties are reduced — you probably won’t see him at the end of a fire hose — the mentor still attends occasional meetings and goes out on major fire calls.
What is his perfect day? Not having a fire call. “While you can concentrate on whatever else you’re doing, that feeling is always in the back of your mind — ‘Is my beeper gonna go off today?’”
Now that Brown doesn’t have a phone ringing 24 hours a day, he can finally relax for the first time in years and spend more time with granddaughters Hailey and Lydia Hanson. Of course, he is also perfecting some hobbies — mowing the grass, landscaping the yard, and fishing. When queried as to whether he honestly finds satisfaction in back-breaking, never-ending yard work, the courageous fire chief laughed heartily and said — “Yeah, I actually do.”
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