TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The Cherokee Nation is contributing nearly half a million dollars total to 136 rural Oklahoma fire departments. The contributions help to support volunteer fire departments, which otherwise rely on fundraisers, membership dues and the help of good Samaritans to maintain their vital operations.

Traditionally, checks for $3,500 each are distributed to the departments when the tribe holds its annual Volunteer Firefighter Appreciation Banquet, where two Volunteer Fire Departments of the Year and five Volunteer Firefighters of the Year are also honored for their service. However, this year, due to concerns caused by COVID-19, the tribe has chosen to forego an in-person gathering in order to keep first responders safe.

Funding provided to the 136 departments will help with equipment, fuel or other items needed to protect lives and properties of families in rural northeastern Oklahoma. The funding is set aside in the tribe’s budget each year.

“I’m proud that the Cherokee Nation is continuing this tradition of investing in our rural fire departments. These brave men and women leave their homes and their families in order to save the lives of people they’ve never met. They don’t always get holidays off, nor do they get to pick the weather or the time of day when they are asked to rush to the scene of an emergency,” said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “To each and every volunteer firefighter across the Cherokee Nation, we see the courage each of you have displayed while serving your community. There is no doubt that your selfless service will leave a lasting impression on the Cherokee Nation, and more specifically, the communities you call home. Thank you for saving lives and protecting our homes, our properties, and our livelihoods.”

Whitehorn Fire Department in Wagoner County and Peggs Volunteer Fire Department in Cherokee County are both recognized as 2020 Volunteer Fire Department of the Year.

Whitehorn Fire Department responded to 388 emergency calls last year including structure fires, medical, vehicle accidents, water rescue and mutual aid. The fire department is known for their quick-response and willingness to lend a helping hand to neighboring fire departments. As a rural fire department with a majority of residents being elderly, the firefighters with the department offer a strong level of service and support to the community.

“Having Cherokee Nation’s support is wonderful. It allows us to be better at what we do by having the funding to reach our goals. We do not charge our citizens for run calls or a subscription fee, so having this funding eases the burden to the citizens in our fire protection district,” said Whitehorn Fire Chief Jay Stamps. “When you are able to tell a person that we are not charging them for our services, you can see the stress ease in their face. We love helping our friends and neighbors, and it is gratifying when you can ease their pain and suffering some with compassion.”

For the Peggs community, 2019 was a particularly challenging year. Natural disasters including historic flooding and an EF-2 tornado hit the Peggs community hard. Flooding led the Peggs Fire Department to several search-and-rescue calls, while the tornado damaged homes, businesses, the community’s school and the fire station. The fire department’s quick action helped save lives and restore the community.

“We are extremely honored to receive this award. We have a lot of great guys who work year-round to make this department successful, and a lot of strong community support that help make this a successful fire department. Really, this honor goes to them – the firefighters and the community that help make this department what it is,” said Peggs Fire Chief Dale Fine. “The help that Cherokee Nation provides is extremely important to rural fire departments. Departments have to budget for fuel, utilities, vehicle repairs, firefighting equipment, and protective gear for firefighters. The funding that we receive, we use it in so many ways. Having these funds help us give the best fire protection to our community.”

The Cherokee Nation also selected five recipients for the 2020 Volunteer Firefighter of the Year awards:

  • Rev. Mark Whitley, of the City of Collinsville Fire Department, for his selfless commitment and service to his community and fire department. Whitely joined the fire department as a volunteer chaplain, and helped with grief counseling during a time when the department needed it the most. Whitley is known to always place the needs and well-being of the community and fire department above himself. His peers are grateful for his contribution and service, which helped make the department a better organization.

  • Jerry Hammons, of the Illinois River Fire and Rescue, for his 30 years of service to the fire department and to the community. Hammons is a founding member of the Illinois River Fire and Rescue, who worked around the clock to help build the fire station while responding to calls. He has dedicated his life to the fire protection service and continues to be trained in new skills to better serve the community. Hammons helps to educate the community on safety tips, sends boxes of food to sheltered people and is also helping community members build a community center.
  • Steve Josey, of Spring Valley Fire Department, for his dedication to the fire service and community as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical responder. Recently, Josey performed CPR on a patient for over 10 minutes until backup responders arrived to the scene, and after backup arrived Josey continued to performed CPR for another 25 minutes, rotating with the other responders until paramedics arrived. Performing the duties of an emergency medical responder helped save lives in the community.

  • Darrell Watkins, of Whitehorn Fire Department, for his volunteerism with the fire department. Watkins is a full-time firefighter with a separate fire department, but has donated his time off as a volunteer firefighter with the Whitehorn Fire Department for 10 years. Watkins is always willing to step up and help out wherever he is needed. In one instance, a neighboring fire department was in need of assistance during a major interior fire. Watkins was the first to arrive on scene from the Whitehorn Fire Department and led several teams in containing the fire.

  • Bradley Jones, of Afton Volunteer Fire Department, for his leadership attributes and strong work ethic. Jones is known for his positive attitude and being an excellent role model for the younger members of the department. Jones is always eager to help out in the community, including teaching fire safety at the local school as well as helping put on fundraisers for the fire department and assisting during community events.

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