For many, having 40 percent of your staff quit would be cause for concern, but for newly appointed Interim Chief Justin Johnson, it’s a chance to make the Gene Autry Fire Department better than it has ever been.
Johnson was named interim chief at Tuesday night’s regularly scheduled meeting of the Gene Autry Town Council after four of their 10 volunteer firefighters, including the former chief and assistant chief, resigned last week.
“It’s a lot of pressure, but I’m excited to work with my team and other departments,” Johnson said. “I want to make this department better than what is has been the last few years.”
The four resignations followed a clerical error in which the department purchased tactical lights out of their operations account, instead of the fundraising account. Gene Autry Mayor Kyle Lawson said it’s important that the money come from the right account because one of the accounts belongs to the town, while the other belongs solely to the fire department. Lawson said he didn’t think the mixup had anything to do with the resignations.
“I think in rural fire departments you have a hard time with retention because it’s on a voluntary basis,” Lawson said. “We appreciate their service and we’re moving forward.”
Currently the department has six firefighters, but Johnson hopes to double their numbers in the next couple of weeks. He’s also working to get all of the town’s fire vehicles operational. Johnson said one of the trucks needs a new fuel line because the current one isn’t long enough. While another needs new batteries.
Carter County Commissioner for District One Joe David McReynolds attended the meeting to make sure things were sorted out with the fire department. He also said he would show the department how to ask the county to replace the batteries on one of the vehicles because it’s owned by the county and not the town. Carter County owns a variety of vehicles that are then used by small rural fire departments that otherwise would not be able to afford the equipment.
“For what it’s worth, I recommend Justin to serve as interim chief, or chief,” McReynolds said. “He has a lot of ideas for this department. I really like his enthusiasm to get the department going again, and it’s going to take someone with his kind of enthusiasm to do it.”
One of Johnson’s big ideas for the fire department is to work toward making the fire department a separate entity from the town. To do this, Johnson would have to change the department’s designation from a Title 11 to a Title 18 or Title 19. Under a Title 18 or Title 19 the department would be governed by members of its board— a position not allowed to be held by the chief. Doing this would also prevent the department from getting into situations where they use the wrong account for purchasing again.
Johnson said he got his start in firefighting in Love County, and has been a firefighter for nine years. He is also a member of the Carter County Community Response Team. CERT is a program that helps train people to be better prepared to respond to emergencies in their community. Through this program, members can give critical support to first responders, provide immediate assistance to victims and organize spontaneous volunteers at disaster sites.
The town council voted unanimously to approve Johnson as the interim chief with the opportunity to become chief after 90 days as long as he holds up his end of the agreement— which includes collaborating with, and aiding, other local fire departments, creating a fair recruitment process, naming an assistant chief that lives in Gene Autry’s fire district, and working with the town clerk on finances and codes of conduct.
When he left the meeting, Johnson said he’s excited for what the future holds, and hopes to make a difference in the community.
“I just want the community back on our side,” Johnson said.