03/19/06 — Firefighters pick Howell for top award in county

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Firefighters pick Howell for top award in county

By Jack Stephens
Published in News on March 19, 2006 2:00 AM

When Jack Howell, the Wayne County fireman of the year, was growing up, he always wanted to be a firefighter. Now, after 38 years with the fire service, he has lived his dream -- and seen a few changes along the way.

The 60-year-old Howell, the chief of the Oakland Volunteer Fire Department since 1993, received the G. Edgar Summerlin Award as the top firemen at the annual banquet of the Wayne County Firemen's Association.

Howell said he was impressed when he saw his uncle, the late Wesley Howell, a Goldsboro fire chief for many years, in uniform at family gatherings.

"That has stayed in my mind," Howell said.

Howell said when he joined the Oakland department in 1968, there were plenty of volunteers in the daytime but little equipment to fight fires.

"Now, we have all the equipment we need, but we don't have much daytime help," he said.

Only one farmer and one or two retirees are on Oakland's 30-person roster. The others work outside of the district.

But even the farmers tend land elsewhere in the county or even in neighboring counties, Howell said. "They're no more available now than anyone else," he said.

Howell credited the county's mutual aid program with answering daytime fires. Three departments now are assigned to respond to structure fires.

"If it wasn't for (mutual aid) in the daytime, especially on structure fires, individual departments couldn't handle them," he said.

Howell welcomes firefighters from adjacent departments, although years ago there was competition among them. Now, he said, "we're a family."

What the current situation might lead to, the chief said, is a firefighter on weekdays to man the rural departments.

"I think the citizens deserve the same fire protection in the daytime as they get at night," Howell said. "It will probably lead to a paid person, but I don't know when."

Oakland's first truck was a 1941 International with a 1,000-gallon tank. Then, in 1962, the department bought a truck with a pumper. Eleven years later the department bought its first engine truck for $43,000. Now, the same truck costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Fire departments, both volunteer and paid, are rated by an independent agency. The better the rating means the lower the insurance premium for residents and business owners.

Howell said volunteer department records must be kept up to date, and members must get much more training.

"You have to know more than you ever knew," Howell said. "You used to not have the knowledge that you need now."

The chief explained that residents have household chemicals under their sinks and farmers use many chemicals. Volunteers now need to know how to handle those chemicals if they are involved in a fire.

With his father, Leaman, already a volunteer fireman, Howell started attending meetings and going to fires in 1964. He joined the 6-year-old Oakland department in 1968.

Thirty-eight years later, Howell said the Summerlin Award "was a big surprise and an honor. It's hard to explain. I really hadn't thought about it, but it's something everyone wants. I can't tell you the feeling I had."

When former award winner Shelton Edgerton was introducing the winner, Howell said he did not realize that he was the recipient until his granddaughter's name was mentioned at the very end.

Before he retires from the fire service, Howell said he hopes to see the Oakland squad build and enter a new building. The current station has been enlarged several times but now has no more room to grow. Two trucks must be kept outside. To remedy the situation, the department bought a lot and will build a new station down Oakland Church Road.

Howell has been married for 36 years to the former Carolyn Wilkins, who works at the State Employees Credit Union. The Howells' only child, a daughter, Jackie, lives near Dunn, with her husband, Jamie, and their daughter, Makenzi.

Howell retired in February 2005 as service manager at Textilease in Goldsboro. Now he can spend more time enjoying NASCAR racing, fishing, hunting and his family, including his mother and mother-in-law.