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This Alabama Town of 500 Needed Fire Protection. Volunteers Stepped Up

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Pearl Pleasant preparing to serve as volunteer firefighter in the North Johns community. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., For The Birmingham Times)
By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times

North Johns, Alabama, a small community in the western area of Jefferson County, not far from the Tuscaloosa County line, with a population estimated at roughly 500 people, according to its mayor, has nearby church and gas station and trains that rumble through, but one thing it hasn’t had is a fire department. That could be about to change.

Mayor Kenneth Lindsay along with a group of residents from the community are planning to form the town’s first volunteer fire department after more than a decade without one.

It’s a sign of how small towns in Alabama find ways to be resourceful without big city resources, but with the help of neighbors.

“This has sparked a sense of joy and celebration not just in my heart but also in the hearts of those willing to work with us,” Lindsay said. “What we’ve been doing in the meantime is relying on our neighbors [in nearby cities like Adger and Hueytown], which was a very often an uncomfortable feeling. Because of that, we are determined to make sure this goes off well.”

Jeffco Help

One of his first initiatives when he was elected mayor in 2008 was to breathe life into the fire station that had dissolved, said Lindsay.

“I was approached by a couple of residents who had gotten notice from their insurance agents that their insurance rates were going to go up because of the lack of fire coverage in the area,” the mayor continued. “No matter how much work I would do on the roads or upgrade lighting, it always hurt me in the back of my mind that we didn’t have reliable fire [protection resources].”

Eventually, Lindsay approached Jimmie Stephens, the town’s representative on the Jefferson County Commission, about creating a fire department.

“I remember I went to [Commissioner Stephens] and told him I have a few dollars, with which I wanted to do either road improvement or the fire station, but I told him I couldn’t afford both,” said Lindsay.

Stephens, Jefferson County Commission president, was told the town was in great need of reestablishing a fire department but had very little resources. The commissioner helped with the purchase of protective gear for the volunteers and a used fire truck and a new engine for the vehicle from neighboring Hueytown.

“I don’t know how much this engine would have cost if I’d had to pay for it in cash,” said Lindsay. “[Stephens] also assisted with the gear, we call it ‘turn-out gear,’ which is very expensive.”

When the town struggled to fund the turn-out gear, the pants and coats worn while fighting fires, Chris Willis, chief of staff for Commissioner Stephens, began calling departments in the county to see any could offer assistance. Yet again, another department came through and donated six sets of gear, which was delivered to North Johns in April.

In addition, radios, that will allow volunteers to answer calls once the department is operational, were acquired with funding in the amount of $50,000 provided through the CARES Act. The commission District 3 office helped in other ways, as well, by setting North Johns up with a vendor to construct a new fire department at a reasonable rate on property owned by the town.

“We’re the backstop for [Jefferson County municipalities],” Stephens said. “For those that struggle and have difficulty providing those basic services, that’s one of our roles—to backstop that and to help them. Not necessarily to fund them but to help them find the funding they need to be autonomous and successful.”

Networking with Stephens and nearby cities has been a tremendous help can stretch your dollar as far as you can, said the mayor. “I’m glad I’m able to network with Commissioner Stephens, as well as [leaders in] other cities and towns like Hueytown and Adger, both of which are good friends of ours.”

History

North Johns, located eight miles southwest of Hueytown, is the last municipality before one leaves Jefferson County and second smallest incorporated town in Jefferson County, behind only Cardiff.

“We’re right at under 300 registered voters and maybe about 500 folks who live in this area. Demographically, we’re 45 percent minority and 55 percent white,” said Lindsay.

North Johns was incorporated in 1912. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was a thriving mining town with more than 2,000 people living in and around the community. It is named after Welsh-born mining engineer, Llewellyn Johns, who opened coal mining operations throughout the area in the 1880s.

“I’ve lived in this community all of my life, and I wanted to become mayor because I wanted to clean up the community, which had become rundown and overgrown in a lot of areas,” said Lindsay, who has been in office since 2008. “We decided that if we were going to get something done, then we should make it our business to do it ourselves. We needed someone in a leadership position to take the town’s resources and do whatever we could to improve the town.

Volunteers

The North Johns fire station will have about 12 volunteers, including Lindsay, who as mayor serves in a number of roles, many of which are not administrative.

“Even when it comes to cutting the grass, I help out,” said Lindsay, who is also in his 28th year as an educator, including the last two as a math teacher at Hueytown High School. “I get out and work with the guys … because I don’t want to ask anybody in the community to do anything I’m not willing to do myself. Will I be in the leadership role of the fire department? I hope not. I’m hoping to have one of the younger guys do that.

“I think with me pushing this to happen as the town leader, the question should be, ‘Are you willing to do what you’re asking of us?’ That’s what I want the message to be as I recruit and get more community involvement.”

Training for the North Johns volunteer firefighters is underway, and that includes medical training from Jefferson County 911 and the Hueytown Fire Department, respectively.

“Once we get this thing up and running [by the end of the summer], we’re looking forward to being a help not just to our community but also to communities near us who are in need of fire protection,” Lindsay said. “This will help insurance rates for our community and for our neighbors. When we’ve been in need, we’ve been able to rely on our friendships and neighbors, and we want to keep that going. I’m hoping this endeavor will position this area to develop a cultural relationship and provide a better quality of life for our people in this rural area.

“The North Johns volunteer fire department will consist of men and women who understand and appreciate the need for our community to be what it needs to be for all of us—Black and white, young and old.”

Among those individuals are people like Jerome Walton, 57, who has been a North Johns resident for three years. Originally from Bessemer, Alabama, he relocated to North Johns a few years ago, after he inherited land that had belonged to his grandmother and great-grandmother.

“I enjoy the peace and quiet living out here,” Walton said. “The mayor is my neighbor, and he asked me about becoming a volunteer firefighter. I told him, ‘Yes.’ I wanted to help out the town. It’s quiet, and it’s a nice place. If my house or my neighbor’s house were to catch on fire, I would want somebody to put it out. Usually, the fire department has to come down from somewhere else, but if we already have people down here to do it, we can put the fires out. Adger has its own little thing going, so North Johns needs its own, too.”

Walton, who works in construction said his background can come in handy when it comes to being a firefighter.

“I know about the structure of a house. I know where the weak spots are if a house catches on fire. I know where to step or not to step if I have to go in it,” he said. “I know about load-bearing walls. Some people don’t know that.”

The North Johns volunteer fire department will put the town on the map, said the mayor.

“We don’t strive to be Bessemer or Birmingham, we enjoy being a quiet, sleepy town that looks out for its own, and that’s what we’re looking forward to,” said Lindsay. “We all recognize the need to have our own fire protection.”