Bunker gear saves lives, officials say

Victoria Fire Department bunker gear hangs on the side of an engine while firefighters respond to a call.

Victoria County firefighters will be better protected thanks to a decision by county commissioners Monday morning.

Commissioners unanimously approved a $20,000 contribution to meet a matching grant that will purchase $100,000 of “bunker gear,” said Toni Stithem, president of the Victoria County Volunteer Fire Department.

Stithem said the department had raised a little more than $32,000 through fundraising and was required to raise its $50,000 half of the matching grant.

“That leaves me $20,000 short, and I have until midnight to raise my $20,000,” she said to commissioners during Monday’s public meeting. “So, I am asking for assistance.”

Bunker gear is protective wear such as helmets, jacket, pants, suspenders, shield, gloves and boots required for fighting structure fires and wildfires.

That gear will be provided for about two dozen professional and volunteer county firefighters.

Although the bunker gear is now paid for, Victoria County Fire Marshal Richard Castillo said fundraising efforts will continue for the purchase of a new brush truck through a grant.

“We’re trying to give back enough to the county to where you don’t have to spend as much,” he said during the meeting.

Stithem said she and other department officials spent countless hours asking for donations at local events, including the Victoria Livestock Show and Texas Mile as well as a raffle, barbecue sale and silent auction.

“(In) July, we had volunteers sitting outside convenience stores for hours at a time, selling tickets,” she said. “They wanted the gear.”

Stithem said she, her husband and her son also personally took part in the fundraising effort, working long hours, sometimes to the tune of 11 hours a day.

Her son, she said, serves as a professional firefighter for the county.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Kevin Janak noted in court the Stithems’ willingness to raise funds.

“They always volunteer,” he said, adding, “For it to stand out, that really is something.”

“I want to say how much we appreciate what you do,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Danny Garcia.

Jon Wilcox reports on courts for the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached jwilcox@vicad.com or 361-580-6515.

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Jon covers crime, public safety and the courts at the Victoria Advocate. Born in Huntsville, Ala., he grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism at Texas State University.

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