For more than 20 years, Clarence Perryman — when not working his day job at Michelin Ardmore, or attending to his family — has spent his free time as a volunteer for the Dickson Fire Department.
For 365 days of the year, when Perryman is called to the station, it’s to help others. Friday, however, the call summoning volunteers to the Dickson fire station only required him to be present.
Perryman was recognized as the 2018 Carter County Firefighter of the Year. In a ceremony, surrounded by his peers, family and friends, Perryman received a plaque recognizing his efforts for serving his community, a $500 cash prize and a catered meal provided by sponsors Michelin Ardmore, Top Tech, XTO Energy and The Ardmoreite.
As the department’s training officer, Perryman assumes responsibility for every volunteer firefighter that walks through the doors of the Dickson Fire Department.
“Nowadays, volunteers can’t be like we used to be when I started,” Perryman said. “You can’t just get on a truck and go fight a fire with your blue jeans, Levi shirt and Redwing boots on. Now, we are so liable for the people riding on the back of a truck that they have to have an extensive amount of training before we can ever let them engage in any kind of firefighting. It takes a lot of commitment from the volunteers in order to hold a full-time, 40-hour-a-week job and then do the necessary training to keep up with the certifications they need to be liable to fight fire, along with all the time it takes to actually fight fires.”
Perryman’s first experience as a first responder came from Michelin when he participated in relief efforts following the May 7, 1995 tornado that struck the plant.
“We got back in the plant and were doing work and one of the guys said ‘hey, you need to get on the emergency response team,’” Perryman said. “So I got on the team and started training and one of the fellow members was also on the Dickson Fire Department, and he suggested that I get on so I could get twice the training. David Conger got me on with the fire department, and I’ve been there ever since.”
Firefighters, while responsible for responding to wildfires and house fires, also usually act as the first paramedics to arrive on scene for medical calls and car crashes.
“More than 70 percent of what we do is medical calls,” Perryman said. “I tell everyone that comes in and sits down that ‘I want you know that you are joining a volunteer EMS services that sometimes gets to put out fires.”
Along with responding to calls, Perryman also assumes responsibility for the mental health and well-being of every volunteer that serves Dickson.
“We sit down and tell them all the possibilities,” Perryman said. “It’s a lot better now than it was back then. We have so much help that we can get to now, and we’ve gotten rid of that stigma that ‘it’s part of your job, suck it up.’ We actually have counselors we can go talk to and we do a lot of critical incident stress management, and back then we didn’t do that.”
While the mental health services are available to all department members, Perryman said he takes extra steps to make sure every volunteer knows what resources are available and the impact their experiences can have on them.
“It’s not mandatory, when we have a death, we get back to the station and sit around a desk and discuss it,” Perryman said. “If they need a little help they can talk to me or the chief and we can get them hooked up with a counselor. I always check on them for about a week, call them personally and see how they are doing and see if they are having trouble sleeping. And they have gotten good about it, they tell us if it’s bothering them.”
The life of a first responder can be difficult. The profession often puts those willing to wear the uniform in positions to see things that they can never unsee. For first responders in small communities, those in need are often neighbors, friends or family members.
“Back in ’95, it was extremely bad. In a 12-month period we had 10 fatalities on that 9-mile stretch of road, and that’s why it’s lead to a five-lane now,” Perryman said. “That stretch was extremely bad. This community, you know those people. It’s not like being a firefighter in Oklahoma City where you can do your entire 20 years and never have to work on someone you know, or someone you went to school with, or work with.”
For Dickson firefighters, the houses they save belong to their neighbors, friends, families and so do the lives they save.
“You get to see the direct results of your training and your services when you get to help somebody, rather then when their house burns down,” Perryman said. “It’s a lot more rewarding a lot more often than stopping a fire that doesn’t destroy someone’s whole house or someone’s whole pasture.”
Perryman said his years of service continue to have a profound impact on his life.
“I appreciate the moment more, and the amount of training I’ve received and how much of that that has carried over that helps me at work and helping me with my family,” Perryman said. “It’s not a part-time occasional when you feel like it kind of deal, it’s an every minute of every day type of deal.”