I was sitting last week with Texas County Sheriff James Sigman as he shared statistical information with me about his department’s caseload in 2014.

Not surprisingly, numbers were substantially up from 2013 – across the board. Regardless of the reason or reasons why, deputies handled more cases in pretty much every possible category, with theft and assault topping the list (again, not surprisingly).

And while the sheriff’s department’s caseload went way up last year, the number of officers on Sigman’s roster was the same as in 2013, so it’s the old “more work, same manpower” situation that so many law enforcement agencies in the U.S. are dealing with because of the oil-and-water-like combination of societal trends and budget constraints.

You don’t even have to look outside the boundaries of Texas County to find three more agencies hampered by that combination, as the police departments in Houston, Licking and Cabool are all up (again) in caseload numbers, but not up in officer rolls.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

Anyway, that’s just how it is in early 2015. There’s no arguing that business is booming in the “busting business” (as an officer I knew once called it), but there’s little relief in sight for the men and women taking care of business.

But aside from the unfortunate reality that budgets and busts are following differing paths, there’s another aspect of law enforcement that always gets my attention. While I sit and talk about statistics, trends or specific cases with the likes of Sigman, his counterpart with the Houston Police Department, Chief Jim McNiell, or any other member of the badge-wearing, gun toting community, I can never avoid being touched by a certain grim reality hovering over the lives they live: You just never know.

Officers of the law have always lived a 24/7 existence of uncertain destiny, never being 100-percent sure what’s going to take place when they pull over a truck or knock on a door.

But that’s true now more than ever, and as Sigman himself said, they’re even increasingly becoming “targets.”

On a weekly basis, I read dozens of incident reports generated by law officers in the community, and it boggles my mind every time I ponder the possibilities. The bottom line is, they really do continuously set foot in a myriad of situations presenting potential for major problems.

Sure, many of the calls they respond to are just plain silly (and it’s hard to imagine someone called the law about it), but no matter the issue, there’s simply always a you-never-know factor involved.

But it’s impossible to know beyond doubt exactly what or who will be on the other side when an officer knocks on the door of a rundown cabin at the end of a dirt road in the middle of a forest at 2 a.m. on a pitch-dark overcast night.

And how can an officer be sure that when he or she chases a suspect into a wooded area that the suspect won’t suddenly stop, turn and fire a .38 special?

And if a guy has been busted four times in the last two years and has vowed there won’t be a fifth, it’s possible that an officer who pulls him over for a tail light being out on his 1985 Chevy pickup might be in for a big surprise.

Even if it’s only the same two unfriendly trailer park neighbors having yet another heated discussion over a barking dog, there’s always a chance one is going to possess a weapon and the responding officer – for no valid reason – will suddenly find himself on the business end of it.

Sigman and I have talked about how it’s inevitable that at some point in Missouri’s largest geographical county, an officer is going to give someone a command three times to “drop that gun,” but the person isn’t going to comply and is instead going to pull the trigger. Then it could be a matter of whose time is up, the officer’s or the gunman’s.

And whether the law officer is wearing a police uniform or that of a deputy won’t matter, because bullets don’t play favorites.

Anyway, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: For what they do, law enforcement officers are deserving of all the recognition, praise and thanks they get (and more), especially those who get out in the field and mingle with an increasingly volatile and unpredictable public. As Sigman, McNiell, and all of the counterparts would surely agree, law officers are, for the most part, in sort of a thankless line of work.

For the most part, maybe, but not entirely. To all of you: Thank you for all you do.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald.  Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

Law enforcement leaders of Texas County – Sheriff James Sigman, left, and Police Chief Jim McNiell.

Law enforcement leaders of Texas County – Sheriff James Sigman, left, and Police Chief Jim McNiell.

 

I had the pleasure the other day of spending quite a while chatting with an experienced local volunteer firefighter.

A self-proclaimed “first entry junkie,” the man not only holds down a full time “real” job, but helps douse blazes with no fewer than three of Texas County’s dozen fire departments. Listening to him describe some of what he’s seen and done while wearing firefighter gear put me in a very reflective frame of mind.

As I’ve written a time or two before, I can’t help but marvel at the sheer drama that is potentially involved – and sometimes fully manifested – in each and every call that comes in to a fire station. Folks, this is not a game, it’s not for the faint of heart, and I, for one, am glad there are guys like the man I spoke with who are willing to put their well-being on the line in the name of trying to save someone’s home, business, or even life.

And the part that always gets me is they do it voluntarily. Their compensation basically amounts to nothing other than the satisfaction of helping a neighbor.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

But again, it’s what’s involved in getting that satisfaction that really makes me think. It can at times mean crawling into a smoke-filled, zero-visibility situation where you really don’t know if the surface under you knees is going to bear your weight, or crumble into a charred pile. It can mean wondering if the next move you make is the one that will trigger a storm of flame to surround you and your partner.

And it often means diving headlong into a battle in which the odds are heavily stacked in favor of the enemy.

But then, it can also mean a preventing a person or family from losing everything, and therein lies the motivation.

The man I was talking with the other day told me a story about a fire he worked early in 2012 that ended in a house being entirely converted to ash. I witnessed and photographed the blaze, and I clearly recall that there was a significant amount of surprise among the responders as to why the dang fire kept growing despite all manner of effort by a whole bunch of well-equipped and well-trained men. The man described how he and a cohort had gone into the basement and were spraying hundreds of gallons of water on an area that appeared to be a hot spot, but as they did, the temperature kept rising anyway.

“I knew something wasn’t right,” he said. “It finally got to a point where I said, ‘let’s get out – now!’”

As I stood in amazement, the intense heat that had built up inside the home caused windows to begin popping out one at a time, and what had mostly been sort of an invisible, smoke-only conflagration turned into a gigantic mass of swirling, dancing flame. The men finally reluctantly backed away and did the only thing left to do: watch a fire consume a house.

The firefighter told me he later found out that the basement he and his partner had so vigorously watered contained a large amount of firewood, which had obviously been clandestinely fueling the hungry fire they were simultaneously trying to stop.

“Sounds like it was a good thing you got out when you did,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

Yeah indeed. With the stacks of dry firewood acting as a catalyst, the blaze was destined to stay ahead of the men’s efforts no matter what they did with their hose. Another minute in the basement and they might have been swarmed by super-heated air and fire.

Imagine being in that kind of environment. And doing it on purpose. And voluntarily.

Wow. That’s either the bravest thing I’ve ever heard of, or the craziest. Or maybe both.

Either way, it’s awesome in a literal sense, and I’m thankful to no end that there are guys like that out there, especially the first-entry junkie kind who are basically willing to be live crash-test dummies and stick their noses right in the face of danger.

All I can do is keep my camera handy and try to document the efforts of volunteer firefighters in a way that spreads at least a little appreciation for what they do. I understand that even if four trucks and 11 men show up, the nature of the beast is that some homes will still burn to a crisp. But others won’t, and a true sense of accomplishment will reign amongst the high-fives and atta-boys.

But whatever the outcome of a call and a response, I also understand that the men who show up in the red trucks are doing one heck of a service for the rest of us.

Keep up the good work guys, and I’ll be thankful for your willingness to do what most people wouldn’t every time I hear a page on the scanner, whether it’s for a structure fire or a training session.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email:  ddavison@houstonherald.com.