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Sense of family helps La. FD stay strong with recruitment

Life lessons and the spirit of volunteerism, community are the heart of the Thibodaux Volunteer Fire Department


Thibodaux Volunteer Fire Department/Facebook

By Jack Barlow
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

THIBODAUX, La. — Across the country, the number of volunteer firefighters is dropping.

That’s not a problem they have in Thibodaux.

Thibodaux’s Volunteer Fire Department has been at the heart of its community since the mid-1800s. It’s made up of people from a variety of backgrounds, with everyone from students to, in one case at least, the very top of the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The department’s current fire chief is Tony Boudreaux. While he’s been in his current role since 2021, he’s been with the department for 33 years.

“Our fire department is a gumbo of individuals,” he said. “It really is. We have members who have given a tremendous amount of time and effort, and we’re all volunteers.”

The department has around 500 members spread across eight individual fire companies. Around 150 of those members are active — regularly attending fire department business — though all members provide help in one way or the other.

“It’s not always the case, but many people have a grandfather, a father, an uncle who has served in that company,” Boudreaux said.

“There are a lot of members who have put in a lot of years of service. For some of them, they’re not running out to fight fires anymore, but they continue to be a part of the department and their company.”

The department is funded by community donations. One of the largest sources of funding is the annual Firemen’s Fair, which attracts over 50,000 people each year and raises hundreds of thousands of dollars. By some accounts it has even raised over $1,000,000 — a startling amount for a small-town volunteer fire department.

There’s always plenty to work on and upgrade. Just recently, the department announced the construction of a new south Thibodaux fire station.

“We wouldn’t be what we are without the community support we have,” Boudreaux said. “It really is a partnership.”

One member of the department is John Weimer, Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Like so many others, Weimer, who signed up as a college student at the age of 18, had a family connection to the department: His father had also joined after returning from overseas service in WWII.

Among his extensive memories of the department are his colleagues putting out a fire at his Supreme Court office.

“A brother fireman noticed at 4 a.m. while on his way to work. He called in the fire and firefighters arrived within minutes, fought the blaze and despite the building being constructed of wood and completely filled with paperwork, not a file was lost,” Weimer said.

The next day Weimer was walking through the building with an adjuster who remarked something along the lines of, “You would swear this fire was fought by a paid, professional fire department.”

Weimer replied, “The fire was fought by a professional fire department, who just happened to be volunteers who don’t get paid.”

Weimer is also proud of the department’s extensive response in welcoming people affected by Hurricane Katrina, where the firefighters helped cool buildings and cook food. Weimer said he had “never been so proud of my community and the university and my fellow firefighters.”

He added that the department was “possibly the largest all-volunteer fire department in the world,” and one that was deeply treasured by the community it serves.

“I learned valuable life lessons as a young man in the fire department, including how we owe a debt to those who came before us, and how gratifying it is to sacrifice for a cause while serving others,” he said.

“Regardless of my career path, these were immensely valuable lessons to learn at a young age. I also served with people from every walk of life and every socioeconomic level of society. When that fire alarm went off, we were all equal brothers in a common goal to serve and protect.”

Weimer says that not only does the fire department provide expert firefighting services, they also work diligently at providing fire prevention and many other community services.

“The spirit of volunteerism and community service serves as inspiration to others which permeates the community,” Weimer said.

One of the department’s younger members is Grant Dupaty, a Nicholls State University student, recently celebrated his third year with the department.

Dupaty became involved while helping the firefighters organize food supplies for hurricane-hit Lake Charles. As they were working, a call came through.

“These guys dropped all the things they were doing and started heading to the fire truck,” he said. “At that instant my heart was beating. I was like, ‘Whatever that is, I want to do it.’”

As a student at Nicholls he makes a point of attending on-campus calls. Since he’s also a certified EMT, he also attempts to attend medical ones as well.

Like so many others, his feelings for the department go deep.

“It feels like family,” he said. “Regardless of what’s going on, or what you have to do in your life, they’re always there. I think it’s one of those things: The volunteer fire department gives you so much, you just want to give as much back as possible.”

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