This is a monthly series introducing you to City employees and their stories.
They’d come into the barracks at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, all sweaty and tired and smelly from another day as firefighters. Terry Cagle was in a civil engineering unit at the time, working on air conditioners, and what his fellow servicemen were doing astounded him.
“I used to tell them when they would come back to the barracks, ‘Dude, I don’t see how you do this. You come back to this place smelling like smoke every day. How do y’all do that? I could never do that,’” Cagle says. “I told them they were nuts.”
“If those guys I talked to in the service could only see me now,” he grins.
The erstwhile air conditioning repairman is now Capt. Terry Cagle, with 27 years of service in the Huntsville Fire & Rescue Department. The past 20 years, he’s been at Station 6, which serves much of Huntsville south of downtown.
His former Air Force colleagues “used to tell me they loved it. That it’s in your blood. And I’d say they were crazy,” Cagle says.
Guess what? It gets into your blood.
Cagle was honored last fall by the Exchange Club as one of Huntsville’s Firefighters of the Year.
“Truthfully, I don’t know why,” he says. “I was shocked. I asked them, ‘Is this going to be the last one y’all ever give out?’ I was honored to get it, but that’s not what we do this job for, to win awards.”
“He’s an extremely good captain,” says Huntsville Fire Chief Howard Macfarlen. “He’s consistent. He does a good job every day. He mentors his personnel to make sure they’re ready and their equipment is ready. You don’t have to give him a second look. What’s supposed to be taken care of is taken care of. He just loves what he does.”
“I keep getting blessed with good people,” Cagle says. “For me to win that award is for them to win that award. These people are what make me. They could make me or break me. These guys right here, this group of people, they don’t work for me. We work together.
After Cagle’s time in the Air Force ended, he returned to Huntsville. He worked a variety of odd jobs, often taking advantage of his old air conditioning experience, then “finally landed on a job” he worked for about three years. But it wasn’t fulfilling.
“Then I saw an ad in the paper. They were looking to hire firemen,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘You know what I used to tell those folks? Now I think I want to do it.’
“I took the test three times, and I’ve been loving it ever since,” Cagle continues. “I tell folks this is the best job I ever had. You haven’t got a stick big enough to run me off.”
Now located on Drake Avenue near Brahan Spring Park, in a modern building as clean as an operating room, Station 6 had been on Airport Road near John Hunt Park for more than a half-century.
It is one of the busiest stations in Huntsville, but Cagle is almost apologetic on a recent early afternoon when he confesses, “We’re slow today. We haven’t had any calls today.”
Naturally, within five minutes, an alarm sounds – “It’s either a fire call or an entrapment. Hang on!”—and a disembodied voice comes through the PA with instructions. It’s a fire, in another section of town, but another ladder truck is under repair, so they need Station 6’s truck.
The fireman stereotypes aren’t far from the truth. Now, there is no brass pole to glide down, but indeed boots and pants are lined up in efficient locations that best suit the firefighters. Cagle’s boots are literally by his bedside.
“What’s a busy station?” he says. “We don’t go by average, but it’s just busy all the time. Most days, it would be four to five calls. I’ve run 23 calls in one day, the busiest day we ever had. It’s medical emergencies, wrecks, fires, running a lot of calls during storms. We chase everything.”
After nearly three decades of service, a lot of firefighters might want to transfer to a place less frenetic, where it’s fewer structure fires and more kittens stuck in trees.
“But I’m not one to do that. I want to be busy. I want to stay busy,” Cagle says. He even figures the award “wasn’t for a certain thing. I got it for being here all these years and not running from the busy-ness of the department.”
The Station 6 team is a conglomerate of guys with different shifts and different skills. There are firefighters, drivers and other captains, with three different trucks – ladder, rescue and the standard engine.
“I keep getting blessed with good people,” Cagle says. “For me to win that award is for them to win that award. These people are what make me. They could make me or break me. These guys right here, this group of people, they don’t work for me. We work together.”
“They’re out there helping people,” he continues. That’s what all of us do it for. If we didn’t want to help people, we’d be doing something else. We like helping people.”
Cagle thinks back to another group of people with whom he shared quarters, those guys back at Laughlin.
“I wish I could get in touch with them,” he says wistfully. “They would just say, ‘Look. See what we used to tell you about this job.’”