Breathitt Volunteer Fire Dept. Sees Dream Come True

Nov 9, 2011

The new home of the Rousseau Volunteer Fire Department stands high off Route 30, with its bright red metal exterior shining proudly over the peaceful countryside. And inside that building last Tuesday, the RVFD held a meeting in its new headquarters.

It was clear and chilly that evening, and without the electricity and gas hooked up, the eight firefighters present gathered in a circle around a kerosene heater and a propane heater, staying warm and using what few precious minutes of sunlight were available to be able to see inside.

But thanks to donations, hard work and true grit, the men and women of the Rousseau VFD are getting the lights turned on, the gas hooked up, and their crew trained and certified for serving their community. Some two years after the company was formed, those who stuck it out are at long last seeing the fruits of their labor come true.

For Janet Hounshell, the circle is almost complete.

“We're on our way to get the electric hookup with Kentucky Power, and once they do that, we'll contact the gas company to put the gas lines in. After that, we'll get the plumbing taken care of, and then we'll go from there,” said Hounshell, who's secretary-treasurer of the RVFD and whose husband, Ancil, serves as the assistant chief. “The Fiscal Court's helped us a lot, and we've been helped a lot a lot of folks in this area. The Rousseau School's really been on our side, and last month's fundraiser from the Rousseau community was a major source of income, and pride.”

Hounshell told the Times-Voice the RVFD raised about $2,000 in the fund raising, in which volunteers helped up the trusses on the new 32 x 50-foot building, which features two bays to put the the department's two fire engines inside. Others worked on putting up one of the big doors in the structure with their tractors, while others offered their time and labor to keep the circle unbroken.

“People donated land, gravel, and their muscle to our effort. I have invoices for three thousand dollars form people who have donated their time and equipment to help build this,” she added. “We decided to hold the fund raiser here in the community, because people would support us more if we stayed in Rousseau. So we got bouncy houses for the children to play on, cooked made-to-order meals, held cake walks, and had a silent auction. The community responded enthusiastically.”

As did the Breathitt County Fiscal Court, stated Hounshell. “We asked them for a donation of $5,000 last month, telling them, 'This is not a want for us, it's a need,' because we need water, heat, electric, gas and sewer service to keep going.' We told the Court people who live here want us to get an ISO rating of nine, so our homeowners' insurance will go down. If we don't have heat and light, we don't have water and sewer, and the other services to operate. They gave us the $5,000.”

What the department's giving back is to make their crew trained, efficient, and certified.

“There's 13 members of the Rousseau Volunteer Fire Department, and of those 13, nine are currently certified,” Hounshell said. “They are Chief Greg Wilson; Assistant Chief Ancil Hounshell; Lieutenant Walter Wilson; Lieutenant Dwayne Cornett; David Ritchie; Donna Campbell; Nicole Wilson; our Instructor, Dennis Oaks; and myself. When Aaron Rukavina is certified this (last) week, that will make ten. And when Tina Rangel gets her certification, that will make 11 crew members. While Michael Fugate is not certified, he is our EMT. And both Eddie and Marcella Spicer are working on getting certified.”

Crew members credit the various fire departments in Breathitt County and Eastern Kentucky for helping them not only with certification, but with supplying the young department in its early days.

“We've had very good instruction form both the Jackson Fire Department and through the annual Hazard Fire School,” said Lt. Cornett. “They both have given us tremendous help, along with the other county departments. We didn't have any turnout gear at first, and the Jackson, Vancleve, Watts and Wolf Coal fire crews came to our rescue. We even got a pair of size four boots for Donna, thanks to the Watts department.”

Lt. Walter Wilson agreed. “The Canoe department gave us good training, and we went through the burn unit when the state was over there in 2009. You have to have that burn training to be a first responder. And some of us went down to Wolfe County last year for propane fire training.”

But the needs of a growing volunteer fire department can only be fulfilled by dedicated volunteers – along with donations and a piece of apparatus, as Janet Hounshell's husband Ancil pointed out. “Right now we'd really like to have a first responder rescue vehicle, which would come in handy with the big territory we cover. We could use seven or eight young people to join us. When they want to join, we invite them to the fire station to say why they want to be a firefighter. There is a probationary period for them, in which they come to meetings, train, and show us they're really serious about helping the community. If they join, they're on probation for six months. Then when that's up we evaluate them and see if they become full-time members.”

“Donations are always welcome, and we would like to see this department become the center of the Rousseau community. With more firefighters and more resources available, we could do more, much more for our community,” Janet Hounshell noted. She added if anyone would like to join the department, they can call her at (606) 666-7933, or they can contact any Rousseau Volunteer Firefighter.

Like many other fire service organizations, the Rousseau Volunteer Fire Department came about through a catastrophic event – the Mother's Day weekend floods of May 2009. After a week's worth of heavy rains, the severe storms that caused the massive wall of water over most of the area became a rallying point for Rousseau's residents.

“That flood took a toll on our community. It opened up our eyes,” said Lt. Wilson. “The flood's where it all started for us, when we met to form a fire department and do something to help our neighbors who live here.”

“In the last couple of years, it's been a challenge, and a big challenge for all of us. We've had a lot of time invested in our training. Every one of us have about 400 hours of training. But it takes a team to get it done,” said firefighter Donna Campbell. “We've always had respect for firefighters. Now that we're one of them, we really appreciate it more than ever.”

But this year of 2011 has seen the most activity, the most fund raising, and the most progress in making the goal of a fully-operational fire department for Rousseau a reality. By the end of this year, their new building will be fully heated, with electric lights taking over the job of the flashlights and the kerosene and propane heaters. The two firetrucks will be inside, safe from nature's elements. And two-thirds of their crew members will be certified in Hazmat and other forms of firefighters' training.

The circle is almost complete.

“We've accomplished more in the last 12 months, especially this year, but we had to lay our groundwork,” Janet Hounshell said as the group finished their meeting and went home to dinner with their families and friends. “And it's also been a busy year with us putting out fires, with the building construction, the fund raising and the training. Because some of us work full-time, like Chief Wilson, it's really been hard. But we've had good people in place, we've had good mutual aid with the other departments, a great community that cares and supports us, and a stroke of good luck once in awhile.”

“When you put that pack on your back and feel the heat, you understand,” said Lt. Dwayne Cornett. “You become part of an elite group. It's an unbroken circle.”