Standing in between trucks in front of the Raymondville Volunteer Fire Department station on Highway B are department Chief Mike Jackson, right, Captain Greg Hinton, center, and firefighter Byron Kruse. The trucks include the department's "first out" pumper, right, and "Bigfoot" brush truck.

As volunteer departments continue to be the source of fire protection in Texas County, one of the busier organizations is the Raymondville Volunteer Fire Department (RVFD).

The RVFD is led by Chief Mike Jackson, 49, a Houston native who graduated from Kickapoo High School in Springfield and currently lives in Summersville. He spent five years working with the Summersville Fire Department and has been with the RVFD for about 11, becoming department chief in May 2015.

“We’re fighting through challenges,” Jackson said. “This is not a simple thing to do.”

Some of those challenges include budget, getting and retaining volunteers and staying compliant with National Fire Protection Association guidelines, Jackson said.

The RVFD currently has a roster of 15 firefighters, including three officers in addition to Jackson (Pat Nicholson, Steve Wilkins and Greg Hinton, who Jackson calls his “unofficial assistant chief”) and four women. There are also four junior firefighters under the age of 18.

The RVFD’s response fleet includes two fire engines (a 1994 Freightliner with a 1,250-gallon per minute pump and 1,000 gallon tank and a 1972 Imperial with a 1,000-gallon pump and 1,000-gallon tank), one tanker (a 1986 International with a 2,500-gallon capacity), a walk-in rescue truck (a 1994 International capable of vehicle extrication, medical emergencies, high-angle technical rope rescue and firefighter rehab) and two military surplus brush trucks (a 1986 five-quarter ton Chevrolet and a 1986 Stewart & Stevenson “Bigfoot”).

RVFD bunker gear

Firefighters’ specialized outfits (or “bUnker gear”) hang at the ready inside the Raymondville fire station on Highway B.

RVFD personnel responded to 77 calls in 2018 after running 122 in 2017.

“You have to consider the call volume being down last year as a good thing,” Jackson said.

Thanks to factors that include the department itself, water supply and available 911 system, the RVFD maintains an ISO rating of 6, which is good for departments of similar size and nature and benefits insurance rates of residents within the department’s coverage area.

“It’s very good,” Jackson said. “We had a reassessment in 2017 and kept our rating, and in fact even gained a little on the points system they use.”

Unfortunately, that rating could be in question if the RVFD doesn’t address a situation with its fleet, as the 1972 pumper recently failed a pump test for the first time in its life.

“That could certainly affect our ISO, so that’s something we’ll have to look at replacing or taking care of,” Jackson said.

The RVFD stays in touch with citizens via various community outreach programs, like interaction with school children and fundraisers like the popular annual “Festival of Yesteryear.” The department always has plenty of training scheduled, including several sessions this spring that will cover several subjects including water supply operations and basic firefighting for newcomers.

“Training is always a challenge,” Jackson said. “An example is that any student who decides they want to do Fire 1 and 2 has to dedicate six to eight months of their lives – two times a week and every other weekend – to training. That’s a challenge.

“Another challenge is our aging volunteers; we’re all getting older and there aren’t many young people coming in. And that’s not unique to Raymondville, it’s nationwide.”

Jackson is a big proponent of educating the public, especially on how to handle a structure fire.

RVFD tanker

The RVFD’s 2,500-gallon tanker truck sits inside the fire station on Highway B in Raymondville.

“Even something as simple as closing a bedroom door can save you in a structure fire,” he said. “It protects you from the flames, heat and smoke and gives you time to get out. It has been proven that shutting interior doors makes a big difference. “The term is ‘flow path.’ It has to do with where the fire breathes from and where it wants to go; any time you can shut off a fire’s flow path or not be in a flow path, that’s a good thing.”

Jackson said it’s crucial to have good relationships with neighboring departments. The RVFD works closely with the City of Houston, Houston Rural, Licking, Summersville and Tyrone departments.

“Overall, we have a good thing going with all of them,” Jackson said. “I mean, if we call, they come.”

When a structure fire call comes in, Houston City and Licking are automatically called to assist.

“And even if they’re not automatically called, it’s just a quick call to 911 for us and the others will be notified,” Jackson said.

NEVER TOO MUCH FUNDING

Like most other rural volunteer fire departments, the RVFD is always on a quest for more money and more manpower.

RVFD chief

RVFD Chief Mike Jackson

“We can always use help,” Jackson said. “We’re a dues-based department, which means we rely on people in our district to pay their annual fire dues to us. That’s always a struggle; if you can get 50-percent of them to pay, you’re probably doing pretty good. Last year we were at about 40-percent.”

Jackson said money will soon have to be funneled toward new self-contained breathing apparatus units (SCBA).

“The bottles have a shelf life of 15 years on them,” he said, “and we’re approaching that. We have about two years, but getting funding for that could take longer than two years.”

{{tncms-inline alignment=”right” content=”<p>“Even if we had all the money we needed, it would still be an uphill battle.”  </p> <p><strong>RVFD CPT. GREG HINTON</strong></p>” id=”cd8a5409-b24e-4943-a76f-978c3a220d20″ style-type=”quote” title=”Hinton quote” type=”relcontent” width=”half”}}

Built-in operating costs also include updating firefighters’ outfits, or “bunker gear,” every 10 years.

“And that’s about $2,500 to $3,000 per firefighter,” Jackson said. “It’s a lot.”

While equipment costs and other expenditures (of both the necessary and surprise variety) add up in a hurry, a big chunk of the RVFD’s budget (and that of all similar departments) is eaten up by insurance.

“And that’s not getting any lower,” Jackson said.

The bottom line is, people at departments like the RVFD perform a time-consuming, labor-intensive and difficult task – and they’re volunteers.

“We’re a unique breed,” Jackson said. “And we’re held to the same standards as paid departments.”

RVFD mural

Walls inside the Raymondville fire station feature paintings done years ago by local resident Lyn Wightman.

“People here deserve as good of fire protection as anybody,” Hinton said. “But it’s a big task; keeping enough volunteers and keeping up with all the requirements is very hard.

“Even if we had all the money we needed, it would still be an uphill battle.”  

But despite the challenges, Jackson & Co. are in for the long haul.

“Moving forward, we want to continue to serve our community in the best way we can,” he said, “and hopefully bring pride and family values to the department and community. But there’s always room for improvement, and that’s what we’ll strive for.”

Jackson welcomes public input or the chance to answer questions. He can be reached at 417-331-9784.

“Even if we had all the money we needed, it would still be an uphill battle.”  

RVFD CPT. GREG HINTON

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