With a career in firefighting stretching back to the 1970s, it’d be hard to find someone else with the experience – or passion – for helping people and saving lives in that field as George Stevens.
But a job such as that can eventually take its toll, and Stevens, who has served since 2006 as Lamar County Fire Coordinator, has made the decision to hang up his boots effective Dec. 31.
“It’s a very demanding job – I typically work 60 hours a week when we’re not real busy,” Stevens said. “I want to spend more time with my family and with my grandkids, and just slow things down a bit.
“So I’m going to do that, and I might pursue some other things – I’m looking at some businesses, and I may be doing some consulting and things like that.”
Stevens began his firefighting career in 1977, when he became an offshore Fire Brigade Officer on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. During that time, Stevens’ wife called him with the news that a fire had consumed a doghouse that Stevens had recently built in his backyard.
“The fire got out and burned it up, and it was just (my wife) and a man in his 70s, and there wasn’t anybody to come fight fire – they were on their own,” Stevens said. “So I came home, talked to the neighbors, and we said we needed to do something about that.”
To that end, Stevens went to the bank to get a personal loan for a fire truck, and after he and a small group got their charter, Pine Ridge Volunteer Fire Department was founded in 1986.
“It was a 1959 fire truck, for I think $2,500, and then about two or three of us got together and did a personal note for the fire station,” Stevens said. “We actually used to wash cars on Saturdays in front of the old Lamar County bank building on Main Street.
“So that’s how we funded the fire department in those days, as did hundreds in Mississippi back in the ‘80s.”
In 2006, Stevens was named Lamar County Fire Coordinator. In his time in that position, he’s had the opportunity to travel throughout the country working with other fire organizations, and served with the International Building Code’s Fire Code Action Committee for eight years.
“It was a great opportunity, because we got to work with some very nice, intelligent and productive people from all over the country, so I got to learn a lot doing that on the national level,” Stevens said. “But locally, it’s the things you don’t think much of – and I think you’re going to find this true of any volunteer firefighter – when we go to somebody’s house, they might be having the worst day of their life.
“Sometimes you don’t realize how important it is to people – we’ll be in Walmart and somebody will come up and hug you and say, ‘I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t come that day.’ And you don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. To them, it was a big event, but for me, I’d forgotten about it by the next week.”
Of course, being able to save lives is one of the most rewarding aspect of Stevens’ job.
“I’ve put AED (shock) pads on peoples’ chest and pushed the button, and they’re walking around today because I had that opportunity,” he said. “And we’ve had other firefighters that I work with that have been trained to rescue people out of buildings, so that’s rewarding.
“We’ve been very fortunate in Lamar County improving fire protection since the ‘80s, and I’ve been a part of that, so that in itself is rewarding.”
One of the biggest changes Stevens has seen in his career is the responsibilities of firefighters. For example, in the early days, firemen were expected to fight grass fires and house fires, along with responding to the occasional car wreck.
These days, however, approximately 80 to 90 percent of a firefighter’s work deals with emergency medical calls.
“It’s not just here – it’s across the country – and the fire service is trying to figure out how to deal with it,” Stevens said. “A lot of it is for drug overdoses or psychiatric problems, or suicides.
“So it kind of makes it hard to keep volunteers interested – they think they’re going to rescue people and run into a burning building every day. But they might be with the department a year before they ever see a house fire – it’s not what they think.”
Although he’ll be officially retired, Stevens still plans to come back to county on a part-time basis in April of next year.
“I’ll help them with some projects for the fire departments, and possibly for the county too,” Stevens said. “Sometimes I help out with projects other than the fire department.”
Lamar County Administrator Jody Waits said Stevens has served the county admirably, and has brought the fire service a long way since the 1980s.
“When he first started, it was fledgling,” Waits said. “Our fire protection services were built on the backs of our volunteers, and he was one of the people who originally established volunteer fire departments and worked diligently as a volunteer.
“As an employee, he’s gotten millions of dollars in grant money for the fire service, and he’s raised it to a level of professionalism that’s really looked to around the country. He’s well respected, and we’re proud that he’s served with us.”
Kyle Hill, who has served with Lamar County fire services for 30 years, will fill in for Stevens upon his retirement.
“I think that if you look across the state, we’re in pretty good shape in Lamar County,” Hill said. “But you can always get better, so I’m looking forward to putting my own twist on it and seeing if we can’t continue to grow. Our area continues to grow, so we need to be able to keep up with that.”