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Former Wartrace fire chief speaks on department challenges

Posted on Wednesday, April 17, 2024 at 8:00 am


Wartrace Fire Chief Mike DeJesus officially resigned from his role two weeks ago after serving in the department for nearly nine years.

Like many small-town fire chiefs, DeJesus and his wife, Nina – who served in an administrative role – faced challenges and many uphill battles trying while trying to update and modernize the fire department.

“I resigned for a reason. Don’t call it what it’s not,” said DeJesus, referring to Wartrace Town Hall’s Facebook post that said he had retired.

“There’s just a culture here, I’m not used to. They’re not used to me. Things that I do, they think it’s wrong,” said DeJesus.

He and Nina moved to Wartrace in 2015 from southern Florida, initially looking to retire. Instead, Mike found himself unable to sit still. So they both dedicated their time to Wartrace fire.

Though the position is completely voluntary, DeJesus said he put in 40+ hours a week.

“We just went way beyond volunteer,” said Nina, his wife of 37 years.

“I made it a full time job,” said DeJesus, adding that being retired enable him to do so. “There are not very many people that can step in there and do that.

“I did it for a year or two and I was there so much, I recruited my assistant,” he said, motioning to Nina who sat next to him during an interview with The Post. “She assumed the administrative position and did all the paper work.” They joke Nina also assumed the position of ‘chief’ – a nickname given to her by the have a dozen or so firemen at the station.

It’s a common misconception that firemen just get a call, hop in a truck, and put out a fire. But there’s much more work than that.

“There’s other responsibilities. And there’s a lot. People need to know that the equipment needs to be repaired or replaced and what they don’t understand is the liabilities,” said DeJesus. “If they get hurt because equipment is bad or they didn’t go to training or keep it up-to-date, it comes back on me.”

DeJesus was up to the work, at least at first.

Adrenaline rush

It runs in the family; DeJesus said everyone in his family has as served in public service in some way.

Before serving a Wartrace Fire Chief, DeJesus was a police officer and fireman in South Florida.

Starting as a policeman in 1980, DeJesus recalled, “In south Florida that was the height of the drug wars. They started with the cocaine and marijuana.”

It was also the time migrants from Cuba and Haiti literally washed to the shores of the beaches. “The crime picked up—Haitians, Cubans. Used to go and if you were patrolling the beach, you’d see them land on the beach and then go like ants and they’d run into the neighborhoods.”

He’s done everything in law enforcement, except K9.

After being involved in a “couple of shooting”—as he puts it—DeJesus wanted a break. His brother was a fire chief and encouraged him to go into the fire department fulltime, which he did until he went back to the police department in Hollywood, Fla., in 1988.

“In that time, I’ve been reassigned to the marshal’s office, drug task force, supervisors of all–started as a detective like in narcotics…street crimes,” he recalled. He was also on SWAT for 20 years, serving as a sniper and marksman.

He also worked in conjunction with the FBI, DEA, Homeland Security, and in VIN (Vice Intelligence and Narcotics)—one of his most challenging roles.

He credits his ability to his love for adrenaline.

“Adrenaline is a drug and you’ve got to satisfy,” DeJesus said.

He had a notoriously calm voice even in moments of intensity.

“They used to get on me because when people were shooting at me or in a chase, and I’d get on the radio and talk, people would not react to what I was saying because I wasn’t on the radio screaming,” DeJesus said.

“You could hear every word he said even when people were shooting at him, throwing things at him,” said Nina, who recounted a time when he was having refrigerators thrown at him from a van as he drove after a group of people who had just robbed an appliance store.

Nina is the opposite of an adrenaline junky. While Mike faced life or death situations, Nina served in a supportive spouse role, even as she herself worked fulltime at a law office and helped raise their two kids.

“I had a stressful job as well (but not as stressful as his) and we had two kids. I knew what my role was,” said Nina. “You have to love that life. I prayed a lot. I still pray a lot.”

The DeJesus’ son in South Florida actually works in K9 enforcement, while their daughter flies with Air Evac.

“It’s not a normal life,” said Nina. “When you’re married to a police officer, fire fighter, someone in the medical field or military, it’s a whole other world. And you have to be the type of person that accepts that.”

Challenges and needs

Having been frequent travelers to the East Tennessee Mountains, the DeJesus’ eventually moved to Wartrace, looking for a quiet, non-crowded place to settle.

When DeJesus first arrived at Wartrace’s Station 6 as a volunteer fireman, he was surprised at the updates needed, from new paint to maintenance of vehicles to updated training for the firemen.

“The fire hall, the only thing holding it up is the paint,” said DeJesus.

Wartrace is a small-town. With 200 city residents and an aging water system, the town, its aldermen, and its residents face uphill battles everyday on a relatively small budget. Often other issues take precedence and trying to find money in the budget means an item must be deferred to be dealt with later.

“The word you don’t want to hear is defer,” said DeJesus. “Nobody follows up on it. No deadlines or due dates are out on anything.”

However, DeJesus said, “It’s not even budgetary issues. It’s the people who are in charge to that point were not doing what needs to be done.”

He said he had only one alderman visit him in his five years as chief. “That’s unacceptable,” he said.

Nina said, “Because it’s a small-town, that’s how they do it. There’s actually more volunteer fire fighter stations across the U.S. than there are fulltime. I guess it depends on their budgets and how much money they have to put in it. It’s not that they didn’t want to it, it just wasn’t in their mind. When Mike came, he redid everything.”

Despite the challenges, Mike and Nina helped make the fire department what it is today.

One of the changes DeJesus brought included building up the station to include a recreation/lounge area to build up the comradery.

“You need a comradery that goes beyond being a fireman,” he said. He even got a grant to add heat and air to the station as well as heaters so the pipes don’t freeze.

DeJesus also focused on bringing the firemen up-to-date on training. “It’s developing to the negative instead of the positive because guys don’t want to do what I expect them to do. They’re lackadaisical before,” said DeJesus.

“I want if somebody’s going in with me, I want to know that he knows what he’s doing,” he added, saying he, too, has forgotten crucial things while on scene.

Notably, DeJesus was able to set up another station hall on the other side of the railroad tracks two years ago as well as obtain another fire engine.

“We had two fatalities because of the train,” said DeJesus. That is, if the train gets stopped in the middle of town, firemen have no means of getting to the other side.

But communicating and working with the county fire department was also a challenge. “We’re really not even a county station, Wartrace and Bell Buckle,” said DeJesus.

“Equipment-wise, we still beg, borrow, steal. I started to go to where Wartrace would but their own equipment. The county gives us funding. We can buy equipment with the allotment per year from them. But Wartrace does not build up its inventory or have its own stuff. It’s always for the county.”

What now?

This time, Mike and Nina are planning to enjoy retirement fully—or at least until Mike can’t sit still.

“Now we’re going to enjoy what we should’ve been enjoying for five years,” said DeJesus.

You would never guess that in their free time, Nina and Mike enjoy antiquing while Mike also enjoys working on cars.

“I used to drop whatever we were doing, I’d drop everything, stop right there, and respond to the station,” said DeJesus. “We got so behind in our personal stuff.”

In the meantime, they say they hope to see Wartrace’s fire department stay updated.

But it’ll take the town, its mayor, and its aldermen to do so.

“[Mayor Brian Ross] is trying, but they’re fighting him. Their mission is more to get rid of him than help him,” DeJesus said, referring to a past October meeting where the Board of Aldermen considered recommending that Mayor Ross resign.

“They can’t keep employees,” said DeJesus. He said he doesn’t believe anyone will meet the criteria and qualifications the mayor put out for a new fire chief.

Chad Carson is currently serving as interim fire chief. But finding another one will be a challenge.

“Chad is the only one with the experience and involved with what I was doing that’ll keep it going. But now I feel like I’ve wasted my time. I did a lot of improvements,” said DeJesus.

It’s not easy working a dangerous job for no pay at all, while finding volunteer firemen to work outside of their 40 hour work weeks is a problem across the country.

A solution may be to make the position paid or to possibly join with Bedford County’s fire department. But that requires man-power and adequate funding.

“They don’t realize what these guys do, all the training, all the equipment,” said Nina. “But it’s very rewarding once you do it.

“There’s a lot of great people in Wartrace. I loved what I did there.”