JACKSON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - In a shocking statement, Jackson County officials told volunteer board members and firefighters that their services were no longer wanted.
They were concerned over findings of financial mishandling at the Forts Lake/Franklin Creek Fire Station. Now, residents and volunteers alike are worried about safety in the community and are upset how it has all been handled.
The letter hit hard for those who have given their lives to the Forts Lake-Franklin Creek Volunteer Fire Department.
"It's like being kicked out of your house," said former board treasurer America Gerard. "It's painful. That might sound strange to some people, but I went and got on the running board of one of those trucks and cried my eyes out. We left here in tears."
Gerard said in her absence from August 2016 to February 2018, issues of financial mismanagement cropped up.
"I still have questions, some blank spaces about some paperwork," she said. "But as far as where the money is, the checkbook is balanced."
Regardless, the problems were enough to convince the county to make changes and turn the matter over to the district attorney's office.
County Fire Coordinator Earl Etheridge is now managing the station. Duties are now being handled by two full-time firefighters and volunteer firefighters from Escatawpa. That's where many have issues.
"Our concern is this: What about response time?" asked resident Ron Williams. "We do not want the evidence of a reduced capability to be a catastrophic loss of property or heaven forbid, a fatality."
Officials said response times with community volunteers averaged seven minutes. But with volunteers from Escatawpa, that response time could be much longer.
"None of this does anything to improve the quality of fire response service or medical response services in the Forts Lake area," Williams said.
Melba Schafer was one of the first volunteer firefighters at the station.
"We're back in the situation where if we have a house fire, we're going to have to just watch it burn," she said.
For those who have served, it's been an emotional connection. Douglas Winters has been here for 32 years.
"It's just... the thing is to serve the community," he said. "I've told people, somebody's got to do it. Nobody has the time, but the only thing is you have to make the time."
For Gerard, it's personal.
"You don't set out to be a volunteer firefighter, but it gets to you. It gets in your heart, and this place is my life, my heart."
Etheridge says that five current or former volunteers with the Forts Lake/ Franklin Creek station have joined the force through the Escatawpa department with more turning in applications.