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Three generations and counting

Parnell family has tradition of service at Camden Fire Department

Posted: August 17, 2012 5:33 p.m.
Updated: August 20, 2012 5:00 a.m.
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Gary Parnell (right) and fellow CFD firefighter Bill Horton during a training exercise earlier in his firefighting career.

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(The online version of this story has been updated to correct three errors. A quote in the 22nd paragraph, regarding the support of life partners is now correctly attributed to Gary Parnell and not his father, Gene. Also, the photograph of two firefighters in a training exercise now correctly identifies Gary Parnell on the right instead of his nephew, Trent Henderson. Finally, in the 30th paragraph, a sentence has been corrected to show that there are seven people on shift at any given time, not that there are only seven employees on the Camden Fire Department payroll. The C-I regrets the errors and is printing a correction in our Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, edition.)

The Parnell Family is a family of firefighters. With 57 years of combined service, these men are well-skilled and understand the demands of the job.

Gene Parnell is 62 years of age and started working at Camden Fire Department (CFD) in 1977. His employer at the time was moving to Columbia and he did not want to leave Camden. His brother, Bobby Parnell, was working at the CFD and informed him that there was a job opening at the local station. He got the job and stayed on until 2004, retiring as captain. Despite retirement, Gene Parnell remains a volunteer at the CFD.

His son, Gary, is a senior firefighter in Columbia. Gary, 36, began his career at age 14 in the Fire Explorer Program, a youth firefighting training program. After completing the Explorer training, he became a volunteer in 1994. He later accepted a paid position in 2005 in Camden after his father retired. Gary began work in Columbia in 2007 and continues to volunteer at the Camden station.

Gene’s grandson, Trent Henderson, 22, has been working at the CFD full time for one and a half years. Trent started out as a volunteer before becoming a paid firefighter.

The second and third generation Parnells acknowledge that the CFD has always been a home away from home. Trent spent time at the station afterschool with his grandfather as a small boy.

“I used to slide down the pole and climb on the trucks. It was part of growing up,” Henderson said.

Gary also remembers spending a lot of time as a young man at the station before joining the Explorer program.

“The family atmosphere is what has been a constant throughout the years. It is like a home away from home because you stay here 24 hours (at a time) and really get to know the guys,” Gary Parnell said.

When asked what has changed the most since the family entered the fire and rescue field, Gary Parnell indicated that the trucks themselves have changed a lot.

“The fundamentals … internally the pump operates the same, but there are some things to make it run easier,” he said.

His nephew agreed.

“Yes, things are electronic and more self-governed. Before you would have a throttle cable and you would have to control everything. Now you can push a button and the pressure is maintained automatically,” Henderson said.

All agree that technology makes the job easier - as long as it works. When something goes wrong then they will use another truck until repairs can be made.

“They (also) fight fire differently,” Gene Parnell said. “It used to be from the outside and we rarely used the air packs. Then we were trained to use interior techniques. Firefighting using the interior techniques is more effective in terms of putting out fires, but is more dangerous for the firefighters. The bunker gear was rubber like a heavy duty raincoat. If you got a hole in it then they would put a hot patch on it. But now they have the lightweight stuff and everybody uses air packs. Otherwise the hoses are a slightly different material, but have the same handlines. It is a lot more dangerous now. It used to be just wood and paper, but plastics put out lot more dangerous chemical fumes. Firefighters are (also) now first responders, and respond to auto accidents. Before they used to run a rescue squad and (only) had first aid training.”

It is no secret that firefighters risk their lives to save others. And very often there are lives they cannot save. The demands of the job are not only physical, but emotional.

“Our job is to save lives first and property second. Of course you can’t ‘unburn’ a house -- if the damage has already happened there is nothing you can do about that. You have to stay professional even though a tragedy has happened, and do the best you can,” Gene Parnell said.

His son also talked about the emotional toll.

“You see a lot of death and sometimes it gets hard to deal with. You talk about it and go on. They have people you can talk to for posttraumatic stress. A friend of mine saw a 7-month-old infant that had drowned, and because he had kids at home he needed to talk to somebody,” Gary Parnell said.

“You learn that you are number one. You risk a lot to save a lot, but you can’t help anyone if you become part of the problem,” Henderson added.

Gene Parnell’s wife, Delores, knows first-hand what kind of stress firefighters face. She has experienced the demands that the job places on the firefighters and their family members.

“You pray a lot,” Delores Parnell said. “You have a lot of patience and a lot of understanding. They do have to spend a lot of time away from home, and are often unable to attend family gatherings. It is very rewarding though, because I am proud of them.”

“You can’t do this job without a great partner in life,” her son, Gary Parnell, added. “My wife is a great supporter. I work a lot of overtime and so that means I am gone 48 hours in a row sometimes. She is really good to me and my kids with me being gone all the time.”

All three generations agree that the one trait necessary to be a successful firefighter is to not take things personally.

“You can’t wear your feelings on your sleeve,” Gary Parnell said.

“You have to have thick skin. People are going to tell you exactly how they feel whenever they want to tell you,” Henderson said. “Pranks are part of the job, too. It is usually the new guys who are the targets. You have to earn your stripes.”

“Even with the practical jokes, you can’t get all mad about it.” Gary Parnell said.

Pranks are a tradition in the profession and are a way to let off steam from the pressures of the job.

“I have seen some of the worst water fights,” Gene Parnell admitted with a grin.

The balance between stress and fun is also found through their roles in fire prevention, especially with children. The CFD even has a clown team that primarily visits schools. They also give young children tours of the station, and dress up a parent or teacher in firefighting gear so kids are not afraid of the suit and sounds of the mask.

Camden staff firefighters are on call 24/7. In order to maintain safety standards, it is necessary for all to be available to help at any given time. Currently there are only seven firefighters on shift at a time.

One can only wonder if there is another Parnell ready to join the ranks of the CFD. By the looks of it, Gary’s 3-year-old son might be next in line.

“It gets in your blood,” Henderson said.

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