When Michael Gabriel makes the walk to Engine No. 1 every day, he knows he could be putting his own life at risk, and he is doing it for free. Gabriel has been a volunteer firefighter for 26 years, and he is currently the fire chief in Winterville, Georgia, where he was born and raised.
“The biggest thing for me is the fact that this is the community I grew up in,” Gabriel said. “So, I’m able to give back to that community. That’s what keeps me motivated as far as being a firefighter up here.”
Gabriel’s life is about more than fighting fires. He has worked in his family business at Athens Steel for almost 25 years. Every day, he works from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. as a steel salesman before making the 8.6-mile drive to the Winterville Volunteer Fire Department.
During his normal work hours, Gabriel keeps his fire department radio tuned in as he sells steel for his family business, often leaving on emergency calls.
“My radio never leaves my side,” Gabriel said. “Seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
Gabriel is not alone in his volunteer efforts. He serves as the chief over 13 other volunteers at the Winterville fire station. In fact, 55% of active firefighting personnel in the United States are volunteers.
Gabriel and his crew all work normal day jobs, with some of them being on standby at all times. Every Monday night, the crew meets at the fire station for meetings to keep everyone informed.
In addition, the volunteer fire department has to turn in a minimum of eight training hours per month for 10 months. Those trainings are done in conjunction with other local fire departments, or at the station in Winterville. For the Winterville firefighters, they spend around 80 hours training to prepare for the 85-100 calls they respond to per year.
“Things are ever-changing, and you have to stay abreast on it,” Gabriel said. “Any time we get the opportunity to train and further our knowledge of the fire service, that’s valuable to us.”
Michael’s dad, Wayne Gabriel, has been a law enforcement officer since 1975. Michael said he knew that he wasn’t interested in law enforcement, but he wanted to have a hand in helping his community. From a young age, Michael had a fascination with firetrucks. He enjoyed visiting Athens, and other local fire departments, which gave him the idea to become a volunteer firefighter.
Gabriel got his start as a volunteer at 17 years old. He was two months away from turning 18 when he first decided to put on fire gear to work at the Beaver Dam Volunteer Fire Department in Winterville.
In the beginning, Wayne Gabriel wasn’t sure how well his son would be able to handle such a job, especially when he wasn’t getting paid. Michael said his dad had two pieces of advice before realizing that volunteer firefighting could be the right job for his son.
“’Be careful’ was his first words,” Michael Gabriel said. “And ‘are you sure you want to do this? Just remember you’re a volunteer, and at any time you can leave that.’ Those were his main words to me.”
Today, Michael and Wayne Gabriel frequently work side-by-side on emergency calls. When Wayne isn’t serving as the assistant police chief in Winterville, he is the engineer at the Winterville Volunteer Fire Department where he drives Michael and his crew to scenes in Engine No. 1.
“It’s pretty cool,” Michael Gabriel said. “It’s something that you can share that you both enjoy doing, and it kind of builds that relationship outside of being a father and son.”
The Right Man for the Job
The Winterville Fire Department responds to a variety of calls, but according to Gabriel, 60% of their calls are emergency medical service response calls. Gabriel is an Emergency Medical Technician B-level certified EMR, which is just one step below the certification needed to work on an ambulance.
Michael Gabriel is in his third year as fire chief, and he has seen his fair share of heartbreak over the years, but he said every time he helps someone, it makes his job worthwhile.
Gabriel’s most rewarding experience was rescuing a family from a burning house in the middle of the night before the raging fire erupted. He also said he’s been involved in several CPR saves where a person has been brought back to life.
Gabriel has six years until he is fully funded in the firefighter’s pension plan, but he plans to continue volunteering as long as he is physically able. For Michael, the adrenaline rush of answering a call has never faded, and neither has the feeling of helping his small hometown of Winterville.
“It’s a great feeling,” Gabriel said. “Because you feel like you made an impact on their life. You turned a bad day into a better day for them. What was a bad time for them turned out a little better than expected.”
Luke Gamble is a senior majoring in journalism at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
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