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Beloved island fire captain retires

By PAULETTE LeBLANC - | Mar 10, 2021

A photo from the early 1980s of a brush or wildland fire on the island. A “young” Bill Russell is stepping off the truck. PHOTO SUBMITTED BY CAPTAIN BILL RUSSELL

pleblanc@breezenewspapers.com

Another island hero has taken his last ride on duty. Capt. Bill Russell, who has given over 40 years of service to this island as a firefighter, is hanging up his helmet to chart different waters. However, something that turned into a lifetime commitment didn’t start as a boyhood dream for Russell.

“When I was a kid, my parents owned Russell’s Texico gas station in Matlacha,” said Russell. “The Fire Department used to get their fuel from us and the chief at the time, Marty Slater, used to bug me all the time about joining the Fire Department — that’s when it was all volunteers. He finally bugged me enough times that I went out and joined the volunteer Fire Department. That’s where it all started.”

Although Russell says he cannot recall a time in his childhood where he wished he’d grow up to become a firefighter, he does recall Slater being instrumental in the decision, referring to him as an inspiration. According to Russell, despite the lack of recreation for island youth when he was a kid, Slater always seemed to find a way to get the kids involved with the Fire Department.

“He was always teaching you something,” said Russell. “The first day I showed up as a volunteer — we had the shop with the fire trucks. The first day I showed up in the shop, he handed me a helmet and a welder and said, here, you’re gonna learn how to weld. So about the first hour I was out there, I was learning how to weld. That’s kind of how we grew up in the department back then — a lot of it was from him.”

Although Russell said there was no one defining moment in his career as a fireman, he admits the department is community oriented, priding itself on doing as much in-house as possible. This kind of hands-on attitude, he says, was instilled as a way of saving taxpayer’s money wherever possible.

“My first 20 years at the Fire Department, you had to fight and scrape for every little thing you got,” said Russell. “That’s how we all learned to build stuff on our own — we’re still building trucks on our own, carrying on that tradition with the brush trucks. When I started there was one person on duty — there was a basic life-support ambulance and we were on it by ourselves. If we got a medical call we had to wait for a volunteer to show up to drive you and the patient to the hospital. Those are my most memorable moments.”

Looking back, it’s all three of the captains that most stand out, said Russell, as each of the current shift captains promoted in the last two years worked under him on his shifts. Although there was a short period of time in the beginning of his career when Russell was brought over to the administrative side of the job, he said it didn’t take long to realize it just wasn’t for him. Being with the guys and the team camaraderie made more sense to Russell and proved a better fit.

“Early on, in the first 6 to 8 years, I ran a lot of calls by myself,” said Russell, “car accidents, fires, heart attacks, cardiac arrest, sometimes it would be 10 or 15 minutes before somebody else would get there. It really helps you learn your capabilities and after that there’s nothing you could throw at me that would really phase me. It was really good for me, if that makes any sense … now I feel like I could handle any situation.”

Long gone are those days, he says, now that one is armed with an entire team on a shift from their first day on the job.

Russell admits he’s not entirely certain how he feels yet about his retirement from the department. Progressive leadership is something he believes in, saying now it’s time for the next group of firefighters to step up.

“Everybody’s going to carry on the tradition,” said Russell. “I’ll still be involved in some way. Hopefully I’ll stay in touch with the young guys and we have a really good base of young guys out there now. That’s what I’ll miss the most … being around them. It’s been a good ride.”