Fire fighting is realization of boyhood dream for Putman
Clif Knight, Hartselle Enquirer
For a boy who dreamed of one day being a firefighter, ambulance operator and policeman, Hartselle's Jerry Putman has done it all.
On Dec. 1, 2004, he marked 50 consecutive years as a volunteer firefighter. From 1959 to 1966, he operated an ambulance, among other duties, as a full-time employee of Peck Funeral Home. Last but not least, he served as a reserve state trooper for 33 years, from 1967 to 2000.
Putman said he got his first chance to fight a fire when he was 14 years old.
"One of my boyhood friends, Bubba Burleson, and I used to hang out at the fire station and play Rook with the firemen when they weren't busy. Bubba's uncle, John Burleson, was mayor at that time. He would join us in a game from time to time. One day a grass fire call came in while we were playing. I begged the mayor to let me go, and he told me to climb on board. When we got to the fire I was given a flap and told to use it to help beat out the flames. It was hard work but I was hooked. I couldn't wait until I could go back out on another call," Putman recalled.
He added, "I asked to have my name added to the volunteer firemen roster but was told by Buck Halbrooks, who was the fire chief, that I'd have to wait until I reached 16 and had my driver's license.
"On my 16th birthday, Nov. 23, 1954, I got my driver's license and became a bonafide firefighter a week later, on Dec.1, 1954."
"The city had only four full-time firemen back then. They worked 24 hours on and 24 hours off. When a fire call came in, they depended on having volunteers on the scene shortly after their arrival. Turnout gear arrived with the fire truck. It consisted of assorted sizes of jackets. We tried to arrive early in order to get a jacket that fit," Putman pointed out.
"It is interesting how the volunteers were alerted when a fire call came in," he said. "The only siren in town was located on the old water tank east of McClanahan's Hardware. Its controls were located next to the telephone in the fire department. The number of times the siren was blown told us what the fire was and where it was located. One blow was a grass fire, two blows a house fire and three blows a fire in the downtown business district. All of the volunteers went directly to the fire station. From there, we would follow the water trail on the street to the fire."
To commemorate 50 years as a volunteer fireman, Putman received a framed resolution from the city complete with the signatures of the mayor and council members. He also received an engraved plaque of appreciation from the fire department.
At 66, Putman is not as visible at fire scenes as he once was. The reason is he has been given responsibility to keep lines of communication open and provide security at either stations one or two while firemen are on a call. However, he still keeps an issue of turnout gear and is willing and ready to assist at a fire anytime he is needed.
Putman said he never sustained a major injury or landed in the hospital as the result of a fire-related accident, but came close twice. "One time at a fire in the old Polly McCutcheon store, east of town, I was standing in the path of a falling chimney. Preston Hall saw it coming down and hollered for me to get out of the way. I barely made it. The other time Chief Halbrooks and I went upstairs in a house after a fire had damaged the first floor. I stepped on a part of the floor that had been weakened by the fire and fell through feet first. The chief had to call on some of the other firemen to come help me get out," he recalled.
Putman said he never tired of being a firefighter. 'There were times when I would be exhausted after fighting a fire for four or five hours, but when the next call came I had another burst of adrenaline and was ready to go back."
Outside of improvements in communications, technology and training, Putman said homes are more fire-safe today than ever before because of the enforcement of stringent building codes. "Homes are safer today and we are seeing fewer house fires. Many fire department are assuming more responsibility as rapid responders to highway accidents and home emergencies," he pointed out.
Putman realized his dream to become an ambulance driver in 1959 when he joined Peck Funeral Home as a full-time employee. He and his wife lived in an apartment over the funeral home when it was located across from the CSX railroad depot. "The funeral home operated an ambulance service back then and I was on call to respond when we received calls resulting from highway accidents and other emergencies," he said.
He remained on that job until 1966 when he was employed by Amoco Chemicals in Decatur. He retired as a lab technician in 1993, after 28 years, and re-joined Peck Funeral Home as a funeral director's assistant.
Putman was appointed to the Alabama State Trooper Reserves in 1967 and remained active with the organization for 33 years, retiring in 2000. As a reserve law enforcement officer, he provided assistance to state troopers in a number of ways. He has pulled security and traffic duty at gubernatorial inaugurations, civil uprisings and entertainment events. But perhaps his most visible encounter with criminal activity occurred several years ago when he participated in a search for a prison escapee. As luck would have it, he came face to face with the fugitive and was in the company of officers who took him into custody and returned him to the spotlight of television cameras.
Putman has also served as an elected city official and continues to serve in an appointed position. He was a council member from 1968 to 1976 and is now serving in his eighth consecutive year on the Hartselle Planning Commission.
During his tenure as a councilman, the city acquired the railroad passenger depot, organized the industrial park, funded the parks and recreation department, obtained grant funding for Sparkman Civic Center, implemented a downtown Urban Renewal program, started the city school system and located Copeland Corp.
Putman and his wife, Pat, have two adult sons and two grandsons. Their oldest son, Chris, resides in Columbus, Ohio, and is personnel/media coordinator for the Mid-Ohio Race Track. Allen lives in Hanceville with his wife and two sons, ages two and four, and works in Warrior.
The Putmans are members of Hartselle First United Methodist Church and have lived at 102 Marshall Street since 1964.