When Jesse Jackson was 14, the Vernon Parish youngster already knew what he wanted to be — a firefighter. Although he wasn’t old enough to drive or legally fight fires (a person must be at least 18 to fight fires in Louisiana), Jackson nonetheless volunteered with a fire department near Anacoco, doing odd jobs and gleaning what he could from the veteran volunteers.
Today, the 37-year-old captain at the Fort Polk Fire Department is the person area departments and fellow firefighters look to as the expert. Because of his knowledge and experience, Jackson was recently named Vernon Parish Kiwanis Club Firefighter of the Year. That recognition was followed by Jackson’s selection as the Kiwanis’ Regional Firefighter of the Year for the Louisiana, Mississippi and western Tennessee region, an area with between 18,000 and 20,000 firefighters.
“Each department — paid and volunteer — nominated someone,” Jackson said. “The local winners then competed against each other at the regional level. I guess the next step is the national competition which covers the United States, Canada and the Yukon.”
Jackson’s supervisor, assistant chief Mike O’Toole, said it was an easy choice for the department to nominate Jackson.
“Among his peers, he was chosen to represent our fire department,” O’Toole said. “The whole picture is not just the work he does here, but the work he also does in the community. He’s very active in teaching area departments how to operate the Jaws of Life. He’s also an active member in the fire departments around the community. He does a lot of the same additional things for them that he does for us. He installs radios and lights, and fixes up their trucks.”
O’Toole said Jackson’s knowledge of the Jaws of Life has cut down on the response time in Vernon Parish for serious accidents. “Up until about five years ago, Fort Polk was the only area department to respond with the Jaws of Life,” O’Toole said. “Now, there are several departments that can respond which cuts down on the response time in their areas and gives those who are trapped a better chance of survival. That’s all due to Jesse going out to those departments and teaching them how to use the equipment.”
Jackson shrugs his shoulders when asked why he spends so much of his own time helping both Fort Polk and local volunteer fire departments.
“Whenever one of the departments wants something, they’ll call me and ask me to determine if they really need it,” he said. “They trust my experience and knowledge. I work hard, do what I’m supposed to do and do things to improve what we have. I guess I just love what I’m doing.”
When told that he had been chosen for the Kiwanis award, Jackson said he was humbled. “I’m not the kind of person that toots his own horn,” he said. “The fire chief asked if I was excited, and they told him I was, but he might not be able to tell. I try not to brag. This is awesome and I’m happy. And I know the people that mean a lot to me are proud of me.”
O’Toole said his department has a true gem in Jackson. “Jesse does so much for us,” he said. “Even down to the decals on our trucks and how neat and orderly they are, it’s because of him. We have a diamond in him. He’s got a big heart.”
And that heart probably best describes Jackson the firefighter. “I love it,” he said. “It’s not the adrenalin; it’s helping someone else. I like helping people. I always have. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.