Westside Fire Department hits half-century mark
Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 17, 2008
By JIM MUSTIAN
EDGARD – If the St. John Westside Volunteer Fire Department is a big family, then Eric Roussel, the 50-year veteran and first fire chief the station ever had, is the grandfather.
This month, the department is celebrating its 50th year of service to the West Bank of St. John the Baptist Parish, an area that includes Edgard, Lucy, Wallace and Pleasant Bend.
And Roussel has been around for all of it.
While Roussel is officially retired now, he still spends much of his time hanging around the main station on Highway 18 in Edgard.
Asked why he’s been around so long, he said: “I like it. I still have the urge to get up and leave every time I hear the trucks pass my house.”
In 50 years, Roussel has fought a lot of fires and seen quite a bit of change.
What is now a 35-man-strong volunteer department (plus three full-time paid workers) began with 22 volunteers in July of 1958.
There were no trucks at the time and Roussel remembers having to ride to either end of the parish just to get water for fighting fires, as there were only two hydrants on the West Bank at the time.
The first fire engine was later acquired from a department in Reserve for $1.
There was far less paperwork – and liability laws for that matter – back then and Roussel said $3 a year would keep things running, a figure that, as of Monday would not buy one gallon of gasoline.
Indeed, the department has had to adjust to ever increasing gas prices. Fire Chief Helmond Lumar, Jr. estimated about 25 percent of their budget goes just to fueling the trucks, up from 10 percent about five years ago.
But at the same time, Lumar said a new policy implemented by Parish President Bill Hubbard has introduced 24-hour paid shifts to his department for the first time, which he said has “really helped.”
In Lumar’s 13-year tenure as chief, there have been no casualties among the volunteers despite some injuries. And just one person has died in a burning house.
Lumar, who has been on board for nearly 20 years, can also point to many remarkable moments he has shared with his men.
He recalls one time, for example, that his department helped save a man attempting to commit suicide on the Veterans Memorial Bridge. Numerous buildings have been spared from nearby flames, and Lumar said he feels his area is “very safe” with the current training his men have been through.
Jennifer Borne, a full-time secretary, has worked at the main station for a year and a half but has been around the station for about 10 years, as she is married to one of the volunteers.
Borne and others interviewed described the department as one big family. She said people hang out around the station frequently, even when they aren’t on duty or on call.
“It’s hard to get people to leave,” she said.
Many of the volunteers also serve as first response firefighters for local plants and have another job on top of that.
The main station on Highway 18 is a relatively new facility. The department moved into it in 2005 and it is still being remodeled. There are four other stations in the area as well, including the old headquarters on East 3rd near the courthouse, the only other station with offices.
Borne and Lumar said many people are learning about the volunteer department in Edgard for the first time because the ferry has been out of service.
“Most the time, people just come to Edgard to come to the courthouse,” Lumar said.