A man who has made others’ safety a personal priority for 25 years is Lawrence County’s 2021 recipient of the Governor’s Volunteer Stars Award.

Gary Stewart joined Summertown’s Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) in July 1996 and became its Chief five years later. He says he never wanted to be a supervisor when he worked for Stauffer Chemical and the companies that later owned it. “So I don’t know how I’ve been Chief for 20 years.”

He apparently leads by example. He was nominated for the Volunteer award by Tyler McDow, Chief of Lawrence County Fire & Rescue. He wrote, “Gary responds to 99.9% of fire, rescue, and EMR calls in his service area, along with mutual aid areas when requested or needed. Day or night Gary is usually the first person you hear respond when his area is paged.”

Stewart is one of five Emergency Medical Responders (EMRs) in his department. Lawrence County’s Ambulance Service and Air Evac personnel provide initial EMR training and the ten hours to recertify every year.

“My goal as an EMR is to keep you alive until the ambulance arrives,” he said. Basic early intervention can mean the difference between life and death when multiple calls or remote locations cause delays for the ambulance service. When COVID cases were at their height, EMRs administered oxygen and kept patients calm until medical transport arrived.

Summertown VFD (and likely other departments) now receives more EMR calls than any other kind. “Wrecks are second,” Stewart said, “and the severity of the wrecks are getting worse.” The department is raising $40,000 for a second “jaws of life,” the hydraulic spreader-cutter used to remove someone who’s trapped in a wrecked vehicle.

Summertown VFD owns five vehicles with specific uses. A pumper truck is the first to respond to a structure fire. A rescue pumper also carries rescue tools; a pumper tanker hauls the most water. A brush truck holds 300 gallons, and is used to fight brush fires. Stewart responds to calls in a Chevy Tahoe equipped with fire-fighting and medical gear.

Lawrence County’s 13 VFDs receive funds from local government and occasional grants, but primarily depend on community support. “We do anything we can to raise money,” Stewart said. COVID put a stop to one popular fundraiser, which gave a family portrait session to those who donated in a door-to-door campaign. “We were selling smoked butts, but then they doubled in price. We used to catch, clean, and cook for a fish fry. We’ve had white bean suppers and auctions.”

The community supports whatever their VFD does, he added. “I wish everyone could be as blessed as Summertown Volunteer Fire Department.”

 The department has emerged from debt several times since Stewart joined, and is better-equipped than ever. “At one time we would share fire gear, but now we make sure everyone has their own.” The fact that membership is down by about five makes it easier to outfit everyone, but the decrease in volunteers countywide – from 350 in 1996 to 240 in 2021 – makes things hard on smaller VFDs.

Everything from firefighting techniques (now more focused on firefighter safety) to communication equipment has changed.  “Our first radio was Marine-issued and would drag your pants down if you put it on your belt.”

No VFD is dealing with growth in and around its service area like Summertown. Stewart said he gets about five calls a week from insurance companies that want to list his department as a policy holder’s primary fire station. New construction poses its own problems. Compared to older houses, they’re built of more flammable materials, and some new home sites will be hard to reach in a fire truck.

State reports are filed for every call, and those requirements change as well. “Volunteer Fire Department Chiefs are not really in a position to know about the changes, but my son keeps me informed.” Todd Stewart is Assistant Fire Chief at Ethridge and Mt. Pleasant Fire Departments, and a state-certified instructor. The Stewarts also have a daughter, Leda, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Gary and Mandy have been married 45 years. Several years ago they invited friends and family to a vow renewal ceremony. Everyone was headed to a celebration meal afterward when word came of a wreck with a “pin-in” at Unity Baptist Church. Gary left for the call despite Mandy’s questions. “We found out it was an old family friend, and Mandy has never said another word. She’s been in the fire department 25 years, too.”

A great-grandson with mild autism helped the couple learn how to interact with people on that spectrum. This led to Stewart’s new career as a Sensory Sensitive Santa and Mandy’s as Mrs. Claus. Also known as “Silent Santas,” people in this role make sure children are reassured and comfortable. He has appeared as Santa at several daycares, and an event sponsored by the Lawrence County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition. The King’s Daughters’ School has been in touch about a possible appearance there.

Stewart is not anxious to retire from the VFD, but said “I’d like to put five to ten hats in the closet.” He is anxious to finally practice one part of his medical training. “I really want to deliver a baby, and when I do, I’m gone. I’ve held the hands of a lot of people as they’re passing, so I want to go full circle. Delivering a baby is really the only thing I’ve ever wanted to be recognized for.”