Nestled deep inside Lake Highlands Firehouse 28, beside the fire engine and behind the red ambulance, sits a heavy box truck labeled “Emergency Disaster Services.” The red and white truck is kept sparkling clean inside and out by proud members of the Box 4 Fire Buff Association, whose volunteers are on call 24/7 to roll out and provide “rehab services” – aid and comfort to firefighters who keep Dallas citizens safe, day and night.
Stepping into the truck is like stepping into a 7-11. Water bottles and Gatorades are kept inside coolers with sliding glass doors – always at a crisp 34 degrees. Granola bars, Little Debbie snack cakes, packets of peanuts and other treats line the shelves, and bags of ice are at-the-ready. Industrial coffee makers and microwaves are belted down to remain secure when the vehicle takes bumps at high speeds. The most appreciated amenity, an indoor bathroom, stays cool in summer and warm in winter.
When a fire broke out back in the old days, firefighters would “put a box on it,” assigning a box, or geographic area, to determine which department would handle the call. Julius Schepps, who famously loved to ride on fire trucks as a youngster and was named honorary fire chief by the DFD in 1924, was honorary founder of the group when they formed in 1963. They named the organization after Box 4 across from his home and business downtown.
The group has about 30 current members, who listen for calls via home radios or through digital apps. Mark Duval, president of the nonprofit, works in his day job as an operations and safety manager for a trucking company and has been active with the group for 16 years.
“As soon as they push the button (to call a fire) it sends it to our phones,” said Duval. “Last week I was at Yellowstone on vacation and a fire popped up. It killed me (to miss out on the action).”
“Some people see us out at the scene and think we’re the fire department. Some people see the truck and think we’re the Salvation Army,” continued Duval. “The Salvation Army purchased our truck, and we finished it out. We can service any county in North Central Texas experiencing a disaster, and we support any public agency that calls.”
The group goes on 100 runs a year – mostly major fires. Their newest partnership is with the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department.
“We get them indoctrinated early. We’re doing a presentation Thursday to a class of new DFD hires. We tell them, ‘We’re the best friends you never knew you had.’”
Mike Hoskins, retired after 32 years with DPD and 15 years with DFD, has been a member volunteer for almost 10 years.
“It’s a passion for the folks who do it,” said Hoskins. “They want to come up and take care of these firefighters. Our supplies – the Gatorade and Little Debbies and all – are donated. We have a fund drive once a year, and the firefighters pass the hat. They raise $15-20,000 a year, donating back to us, and that’s what we use to operate. We set out awnings and chairs to get them out of the weather and sun, with misting fans in the summer and kerosene heaters in the winter.”
Recruiting volunteers, they say, isn’t too difficult. Finding folks to stick with it – that’s a little harder.
“It’s a yearlong process to become a member,” explained Duval. “When people ask to join, we ask that they come to at least 10 runs. They have to pass an extensive background check, because we’re so close to law enforcement officers and firefighters. Recently, when the guy tried to shoot up the police department, we were called down there and spent 2 days with DPD and FBI, so we have to vet our members really well. And we explain that they’ll see things, at times, that they won’t be able to talk about.”
Hoskins’ decades as a first responder give him a unique appreciation for the work of the volunteers.
“I’ve been on both sides of this. I know how important this job is to the firefighters on the scene. I’ve been out there in the cold, and I’ve been out there in the heat. When you come out of a hot fire and you’re dripping with sweat and you see this truck, you know they’re there for you. They’re going to give you cold towels to put around your neck and something to drink and a place to sit and relax and recuperate.”
Mike’s wife, Karen, serves with the Box 4 Fire Buffs, too. Her favorite task is taking and posting photos to the Box 4 Member-Dallas Fire Scene Photos Facebook page, enabling spouses and children to see their family members hard at work saving homes – and lives.
“Karen’s dad was a Dallas firefighter, my dad was a Dallas police officer, my grandfather was a Dallas firefighter – we’ve been raised in this. It’s what we do. It’s a passion for us. We’ll get a call at 1 in the morning and might not get home until 5. Then she goes home and takes a shower and goes to work. Luckily, she works for Comerica Bank, and they encourage her volunteer hours.”
The task is grueling – so why do they volunteer?
“I went to Jesuit (College Prep),” said Duval, “and our motto was: We’re Building a Man for Others. I always did volunteer work, but didn’t always speak to me. I found this group online, and I know it was what I really wanted to do. I came to my first fire, and I’ve been hooked ever since. For me, it’s being a servant to all these firefighters, because they’re putting it on the line for me every day.”
Mark and his wife, Jennifer, live near Skyview Elementary, but they previously lived a stone’s throw from Station 28.
“I could hear the speakers whenever they had a run. Those first few years when the sirens went off, I had a huge adrenaline surge. Now, I have a mile to drive to the station, so I work to calm down so I don’t get in a wreck.”
I asked if the Box 4 Fire Buffs ever feel unappreciated.
“Never,” said Hoskins. “We know the firefighters appreciate us, because they tell us every day. It’s a rewarding experience. Every time they come to the window to get a drink or snack they say, ‘man, we sure appreciate you being here.’”
“One of our Box 4 members is an active firefighter and says he finds this even more rewarding,” agreed Duval. “It’s doing something for someone else when it can be most inconvenient. But it’s not for everybody. I tell trainees there’s no shame in that. It’s easy to come to a fire at 2 on a Saturday afternoon. It’s harder at 2 on a Wednesday morning when you know you’ll have to shower and do a full day of conference calls at work when you are finished.
“I love the reward I get when I take care of first responders, because they’re taking care of me and putting it on the line for me. Every one of them could lose their life today trying to protect me. This is something minor I can do to tell them thank you. That’s why I do it.”
If you’d like to donate to the Box 4 Fire Buffs’ cause, you may contribute online here or swing by Firehouse 28 on Greenville Avenue near Royal Lane with cases of Gatorade, water or individually-wrapped snacks. If you’d like to become a Box 4 volunteer, contact the members on the website here.