A Day in the Life: Braving the heat and witnessing the heroism of firefighters

Cleveland Firefighter Mike O'Brien puts out a fire that was started by a downed tree that fell on a power line.

By Alexia McCulloch, newsdesk@bluebonnetnews.com

I’ve been struggling with how to start this installment of ‘A Day in the Life’ because I want to properly convey the appreciation I have for first responders, and especially the ones I spent the day with on Tuesday, Aug. 22.

It’s hard to wrap your mind around the selflessness and heroism displayed by the men and women who are willing to run into a burning forest or house, when others are running away, and to put their lives on the line for the sake of others.

Being an emergency responder is arguably one of the most noble things a person can do, and I am blessed to have gotten a glimpse into the lives of some of the firefighters who protect Liberty County.

With how I was raised to be pro-first responder, I’m pretty familiar and even comfortable with firefighters and other emergency service personnel, so I had a good idea of what I was getting myself into. I was still nervous getting out of my car at Cleveland Fire Department on Tuesday, but after a few handshakes and introductions, I knew I was going to be in good hands for whatever the unpredictable day brought.

After signing a waiver with Lt. Nick Flanery, FF Russell Reed and FF Mike O’Brien showed me around the trucks while they were doing a number of routine checks on them to ensure that they would be prepared in case of a call.

Checking fuel levels on the trucks, doing horn tests and refilling gas on chainsaws and other equipment were just a few of the things the guys were doing. Because a call could “drop” at any moment, and calls would inevitably start pouring in as the sun got higher and the day got hotter, it’s vital to be ready for anything at the fire department.

After all the checks were done, and I felt like a giddy kid sitting in a fire engine for the first time, we came inside the station. I sat at the dining room table for a while and talked to FF Melvin Cates and Capt. Craig Grissom while Capt. Grissom made some pretty dang good biscuits and gravy per request of the guys. We talked about life, hunting, family, and the hard parts of the job. Capt. Grissom said he struggles with calls that involve children the most, as he has his own.

We talked also about the unpredictability of getting calls at the station. There’s no telling how bad something really is when you get the call. A wreck could be anything ranging from a fender bender to a fatality. He also said that when they get the opportunity to sit down and eat, the table normally goes silent. Because a call could come in at any point, and there’s no telling when the next time they would be back to finish their food, they get their food down quickly for the “just-in-case.”

Once breakfast was ready, we all sat down, with the Captain joining us last. Almost as soon as he started eating, a call came in over the loudspeaker saying there had been a three-car accident on Houston Street. The irony wasn’t lost on us as we left the station in a hurry. I told him, “I see what you mean.”

After having just spoke about never knowing what you’re in for when a call drops, I was nervous on the short ride over. I’ll go ahead and put you at ease by saying, thankfully, no one was injured, and only one of the cars had major damage.

This was my first experience standing on the side of the road at an accident with emergency responders. It was pretty awesome to see people from different departments come together efficiently and effectively to make sure everyone involved was okay, organize traffic and get the car off the road within an hour or so.

(left to right) Lt. Nick Flanery, Cpt Grissom, and FF Mike O’Brien set up the defibrillator for our mid-day lesson. While not at calls, the firefighters keep up with classes that are assigned at the beginning of the month or work on a new certification to ensure they are well-equipped to serve the community.

Once the accident was cleared, we went back to the station where we did some training.

Nick has been working on his EMT-P certifications, so we sat around the dining room table and Captain Grissom taught all of us how to read a defibrillator and understand different heart readings – after he finished his slightly cold breakfast.

Although I knew the bare minimum about anything heart-related, and I had to use a lot of context clues, it was very informative and interesting.

It made me realize just how much specialized information these firefighters and EMTs have to know, and how little I knew.

I was interested to learn more practical skills in case of a medical emergency, so I asked Fire Chief Sean Anderson what someone like me could do to prepare for something like that.

“We’re working on getting more people certified to be able to teach CPR, and when we move into the new station in Grand Oaks Reserve, we’re going to have classes, whether it’s monthly or quarterly. We will start having CPR and safety classes and stuff like that where the public can come out to the station and learn,” he said.

After we looked at a few heart attack examples, how they appear on the defibrillator printouts and what to do in response to different readings, we took a quick trip to the grocery store for dinner supplies. Before we left, one of the guys asked, “What are we making for dinner?” Another responded, “Whatever’s on sale.” We laughed it off, but after talking with Chief Anderson, I understand the challenge in making money stretch for the department.

Cleveland and Liberty fire departments are the only paid fire departments in Liberty County, with the other 12 being mostly volunteer except for some where the chief and some administrators are paid. Even though Cleveland firefighters are paid, some still have to get second jobs to support themselves and their families. All of the fire departments in the area are suffering from a lack of funds, Chief Anderson explained, including money needed for repairing fire apparatus.

A few minutes after our return from the store, a call came in about a potential fire in the Plum Grove area, so Mike and I went off in that direction, while Nick, Russell and Captain Grissom went to a fire elsewhere.

On our way to the Plum Grove fire, dispatch said to disregard the call. Then, almost immediately after, we were told a tree had fallen on an electrical line close to where we were. Upon arrival, Mike set out traffic cones on one side and then used the fire truck as a barricade on the other.

The power had to be shut off before he was able to hose down the fire that was caused by the fallen tree, so after a few minutes of waiting on the electric company, and after a little bit of explaining to a few motorists who still hoped they could be let through, Mike was ready to do the “fighting fires” part of the firefighting.

With the Cleveland Fire Department being the busiest fire department in Liberty County – on track to receive 2,500 calls by year-end, Chief Anderson and his department have a heavy burden to carry. Firefighting, especially in this brutal Texas heat, is no cakewalk, and being undermanned magnifies the burden.

“We are severely understaffed. If you go by ISO, which is the insurance rating system, what they would like us to be able to respond with if we drop a structure fire within the city, I should respond with two pumpers and a ladder truck. Per NFPA (National Fire Protection Association), a pumper should have four personnel on it, so the two pumpers, that’s 8, plus the ladder truck is another 4, so that’s 12. And someone is needed to be in command and someone to be the safety officer, that’s 14 personnel from the fire department,” said Chief Anderson.

On a daily basis, Cleveland Fire Department averages 3 to 5 personnel.

After the fire was put out on the tree, Mike and I went back to the fire station and recouped from the heat. I scrounged around in the kitchen and made some coffee, and Mike and I talked about his time in the military and martial arts while we waited for the others to get back. Eventually, Nick, Russell and Captain Grissom returned, a bit dirtier than when they left. I told them I made some coffee, figuring maybe they should rest for a minute or two, but much more used to the intensity of their jobs than I, they were already on to the next project during their downtime.

I had been requested by my editor to get some pictures of me in bunker gear, and so during this downtime, I obliged. Also I REALLY wanted to try on the firefighting gear. These guys are required to get this gear on in a short amount of time, and, not that I was rushing, but it took me probably more than five minutes, with the assistance of Mike, Nick and Russell.

When I was a kid, there was a day where firefighters visited my school and gave a presentation during our PE class. Some of the other kids got to try on the junior gear and I was super jealous. This one’s for you, 7-year-old me – the air tank is way heavier than you’d think.

Alexia McCulloch tries on bunker gear.

After getting the extra 50 or so pounds of gear off, it was back to work. Mike and I were sent off to do inventory of pots and pans at the new fire station, but we didn’t make it. About halfway there, we got a call that there was a grassfire west of Cleveland, on SH 105 across from Cornerstone Church.

Even though I was raised in the news business, I DEFINITELY hadn’t been in the middle of a wildfire where you can feel the heat radiating through the truck windows, watching as fire spreads across more than an acre of brush and trees. Having gotten to know them, I trusted these guys with my life, and I knew they wouldn’t have put me in danger. I figured if I can be safe with anyone at a spooky grassfire, it’ll be these firefighters.

When we arrived at the wildfire, both sides of the private road were blazing, and Nick and Russell were already applying water to the fire. Soon after we got there so did Chief Anderson, Assistant Fire Chief Roger Brookes, Captain Grissom, FF Melvin Cates, Tarkington Fire Department and Plum Grove Fire Department. It was a collaborative effort, and really something to behold.

Chief Anderson spoke of camaraderie between firefighters, including those from neighboring agencies, and how they all must rely on each other in a crisis.

“I am sure that you’ve heard that the fire department is a family because firefighters spend more time at the fire station than with their own families. Their families come to the fire station and eat dinner together, so a majority of guys on the same shift end up being called ‘Uncle’ by their teammate’s children,” Anderson said. “Fire service is a brotherhood.”

Prior to this experience, I already appreciated all of the men and women in the emergency services industry, but my day with the Cleveland firefighters on Tuesday really helped me to understand more of what it’s like – and this was only a glimpse into some of the heroism. My respect for these people has grown immensely, and it was already about as high as it could get.

I would like to end this ‘Day in the Life’ with this: Volunteerism is declining in this country, and the one sector that can’t afford the decline is firefighting, which in small, rural areas relies heavily on volunteers.

Please reach out to your local fire stations or the Liberty County Fire Marshal’s Office, and see if there is anything you can do, no matter how big or small, to help alleviate some of the pressure on these men and women. If you have physical limitations, there are still ways to help. Consider fundraising, water or Gatorade drives, or even offering to buy the $30 worth of groceries they need for dinner. It will go a long way in showing respect for these very underappreciated folks.


  1. It’s even harder for the volunteers considering most departments don’t have an Emergency Services District (ESD). With limited funds coming from the County, most of these departments rely on fundraisers to make up the difference, which puts an even greater strain on the members.

    So if your area comes up for an ESD vote, please vote yes!!! Some day, some where, and at some time, it could mean the difference between life and death, and the life… and that life could be your own.

    Oh, and my wife, Cassie, who used to be a reporter with your mom, says not to wear flip-flops to a brush fire!!!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.