When disaster strikes, this tiny island has a dedicated team of protectors
by Justin Heckert
Photography by Gabriel Hanway
Jekyll Island fire chief Jason Richardson has this memory that sticks with him from last October.
“It was very, very surreal,” he says. “It was raining and dark. We had to get off the island. The wind speeds were picking up; it was coming.” Richardson, who has been chief on Jekyll for the past eleven years and normally is more concerned with, say, rescuing lost and dehydrated beachgoers, was tasked with evacuating the island in advance of Hurricane Matthew. He had already spent three days encouraging residents to leave, utilizing a reverse 911 system to implore the holdouts and in some cases actually driving people himself.
Now, with the category 3 storm less than twenty-four hours out, he and other members of Jekyll’s crisis response team prepared for departure. Under a dark sky and thin rain, as the second-to-last person in the convoy, he paused on the barricaded causeway, soaking in the eeriness, the emptiness. For the first time under his tenure, Jekyll Island was effectively closed.
When the team came back the next day, they saw the damage—shingles blown off houses, hundreds of trees on the roads and golf course, power out for three days—but the island had been mostly spared. The dunes had done their job protecting the land. Richardson and fellow firefighters—along with the Jekyll Island Authority grounds crew and the Department of Natural Resources chainsaw strike team—worked to clear the roads until 9 that night. It was a performance they would repeat eleven months later, when Hurricane Irma toppled trees and power lines and brought intense storm surges to some residential streets. Once again, the island underwent a full-scale evacuation. Again, the dunes blunted the worst of the storm’s impacts.
In early May, Jekyll firefighters faced another potential disaster: a wood fire of unknown origin, burning for an entire week. Due to wind and dry conditions, it ended up taking six acres and required the aid of Georgia Forestry, the Georgia State Patrol’s aviation division, and the Department of Natural Resources. The Jekyll fire team—which employs twelve firefighters, the same number of firefighter EMTs, and ten firefighter paramedics who work five at a time in twenty-four-hour shifts—all took turns combating the blaze using a water line and two of the island’s three fire trucks.
The Jekyll Island Fire Department originated in the 1950s from a legislative act granting the Jekyll Island State Park Authority its own fire and EMS service. The first Jekyll firemen bunked in a historic carriage house still redolent of horse manure. The current station on Stable Road opened in December 1961 and, through two renovations, has been there ever since.
At the station, behind the captain’s desk in the lobby, there’s a huge mural depicting the department’s current fire truck and ambulance, with a firefighter posed in between. The firefighter embodies the station’s day-to-day operations: quelling emergencies on the island, rescuing people in distress, administering first aid. His position between the vehicles symbolizes employees’ dual training in EMS and fire rescue. Though the setting is idyllic, Jekyll’s firefighters work the same hours and with the vigor of any other fire team.
And in good times, they drive the trucks to parades and events such as the Shrimp & Grits Festival, the Christmas tree lighting, and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center’s Turtle Crawl races. The department hosts a chili cookout every January benefiting the United Way; the firefighters make the chili.
“I meet people from all over the world here,” Richardson says. “You still get to be a firefighter, and secure the island, and we help people who are having a bad day. But I can leave my office and in forty-five seconds look at the beach if I want to.”