The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

December 30, 2012

Firefighters concerned over recent violence

By Rebecca Croomes
For The News Courier

— When out on the call, firefighters never expect to be greeted with violence, but recent events have units in Limestone County watching their backs.

“It makes me nervous,” said Athens Fire Chief Tony Kirk. “That’s pretty much the consensus throughout the fire service.”

Apprehension set in after a man in Webster, N.Y., shot and killed two firemen and injured another two before turning the weapon on himself on Christmas Eve. The man, identified by police as William Spengler, 62, set fire to his house and car before calling in the blaze. Spengler began shooting from an elevated place as the fire crew arrived on scene, forcing any efforts to battle the flames to stop until police showed up. Seven homes burned before police secured the area. Spengler’s motive for the crime has not been released.

Then on Thursday, no firefighters were injured when a man, identified as Phillip Earl Jones Jr., opened fire when a crew responded to a medical call at his home in Hoover. Police report Jones was arrested and taken to the hospital before being transferred to Hoover City Jail and then Jefferson County Jail, where he is being held on a $30,000 bond on a charge of attempted murder.

East Limestone Fire Chief Joey Boyd said he felt apprehensive for not only his own safety, but also the safety of other firefighters and first responders.

“It’s a tragedy is what it is,” said Boyd.

Police presence with fire crews differs between the county and city. In Athens, Kirk said Athens Police Department is good about showing up to most every call.  Since firefighters are prohibited from carrying guns, Kirk said his men are at the mercy of the police department to protect them.

“They do an outstanding job just being there,” Kirk said.

Over his 26-year career, Kirk said APD has had a quick response when threats were made to the firefighters or rocks thrown at their cars.

While out in the county, Boyd said the sheriff’s department was stretched too thin to be able to respond to every fire call for every department. Depending on the nature of the incident, Boyd said, deputies show up 95 percent of the time.

Despite the two shootings, Boyd said he didn’t foresee an increased police presence while on duty, but didn’t feel nervous about it.

“We’ll just have to be more aware of our surroundings in our response,” Boyd said.

Kirk said it’s only a few outliers who try to hurt firefighters, but no matter the reason, their mission remains the same.

“We’re going out here to help people, that’s our sole purpose.”