Story and Photos by Janie Shelswell-White
There is a cottage on Beech Street, built before there was a village called Crestline. It was owned by J. D. Watkins, a dairy man whose family was among the early settlers in what was then called Watkins Branch. His dairy was just up the street, where St. Francis Xavier School is today. His son also had a dairy on Montevallo Road.
Flash forward to his great-great-grandson, Heathe Watkins, who sits in another type of house a few blocks away—a firehouse. That in itself is a great story of familial ties; a current Mountain Brook first responder returning to serve in the community where his family has such a rich heritage.
But that is not the only generational twist. Heathe is also following a career path that was blazed by his father, Scott, a longtime firefighter.
A New Watkins Branch … of Service
At the corner of Oak Street and Hoyt Lane stands a single steel girder from the World Trade Center. The day those buildings fell in New York City not only changed the course of our country but also the lives of children who watched it unfold.
Heathe was inspired not only by 9/11 but also by the sight of his father leaving to work his shift as a firefighter and paramedic.
“My brother and I thought it was the coolest thing,” says Heathe. “It was just Dad going to work like all the other dads. He just had different hours. I do remember when Dad would bring his gear home to wash after a fire. I would sneak and wear it in the garage or back porch.”
Big Shoes (Boots) to Fill
Heathe’s dad sits in his kitchen thumbing through some photos. Sure enough, several are of Heathe as a boy, disappearing into Scott’s helmet and boots. “When he was a little fella he knew Dad was gone a lot,” says Scott. “As he got older he realized that Dad was gone helping people.”
Scott spent 34 years serving the Center Point District, Hoover Fire and Rescue, Cahaba Heights Fire District, and North Shelby Fire District. “My favorite thing was working in stressful situations knowing we had each other’s backs,” he says. “We knew we’d take care of each other in the worst situation.” Of course, having a family back home affected his perspective when answering some calls. “One of the hardest things for me was seeing families affected by life-altering events,” he says. “As a husband and father it was hard not to think about my own family.”
His devotion to his wife, Tammy, and his sons is clear as he reminisces over the family photos in his hand. Scott also served as a leader in their Boy Scout Troop. Heathe and his brother Matthew both got an early behind-the-scenes look into the operations.
Getting a glimpse into that world only “fueled the fire.” Those experiences gave Heathe a respect and passion for the work his father and others did.
“From the age of 12, I experienced all ends of the spectrum this job entails,” says Heathe. “From the banter between firemen to babies being brought into this world to people passing away.”
Dreams That Couldn’t Be Extinguished
As much as Scott loved being in the fire service, he didn’t push Heathe to follow in his boot steps. “He and mom wanted me to go to college,” says Heathe. “However, once he realized I was serious, he supported me 100 percent.” As a Boy Scout, including earning Eagle Scout at 16, Heathe gained a lot of the skills and the mental fortitude he’d need just to get through rookie school.
He earned his Firefighter Certification at the Alabama Fire College in 2004 and received his Paramedic Certification in 2006 from Bevill State Community College. “I advised Heathe to take all the classes he could,” says Scott. “To learn everything and use what he learned to help others, take care of himself, and those on his crew.”
It’s been 15 years, and Heathe now leans up against the Rescue truck in Mountain Brook Fire Station 1 where he’s served his entire career. He’s been a Paramedic, Tac Team Medic with Mountain Brook Police, Basic Swat, Alabama Mutual Aid Systems Division G, Wilderness I-II instructor with AFC, and a SARTEC Instructor (for Search and Rescue).
While Heathe obviously inherited his father’s “never stop learning” attitude, Scott recognizes that he’s brought his own strengths to the job.
“Every fire department has its own personality, and Heathe has the ability to adjust and serve his department anywhere needed. He serves Mountain Brook as a SWAT medic, cooks meals, and makes sure those around him have everything they need, sometimes to the point of sacrificing himself.”
But Heathe has always kept his father’s example in sight.
“‘Legacy’ is not a term you hear often at the fire department. Dad’s nickname was Bob, so I was known as Bob Jr. Yes, I still get that today. While I take my job very seriously, my sense of humor is the biggest difference. Dad is a man of few words, and some would say that I talk too much. “But we have more in common. We always think three steps ahead in any situation. We both cook well, although, mom may argue that I got it from her.”
Training Colleagues and the Next Generation
Just like his father, Heathe believes in the importance of constantly learning.
“Most people think firemen just fight fires, but it doesn’t stop there,” he says. “Today we must be proficient in advanced medical skills/assessments, know current building codes and materials and how they respond to flames, and even how to handle a wreck involving the latest electric and self-driving vehicles. Some of us are trained in police tactics and take technical rescue classes. And of course COVID-19 has forced us to change how we treat and interact with patients.”
Training goes well beyond how they handle rescues. Scott and Heathe both believe that their own fitness is critical to the job. “In the fire service you train every day, in all conditions,” says Scott. “Training will always incorporate physical stress, and a firefighter must be able to think clearly in stressful circumstances.” Heathe and his team embrace this philosophy as well. Walk through the bay doors and you’ll see a tractor tire against the wall, weights, rowing machine, and other equipment. Some they brought from home and the rest was provided by the department. “We are committed to fitness,” says Heathe. “Everyone has an annual jobtask-related physical fitness test they must pass. Without physical fitness we cannot provide the citizens the quality service they expect and deserve. “Our personal firefighting gear alone can weigh anywhere between 60-80 pounds before we touch a tool or section of hose.”
Beyond fitness, father and son both love teaching those who are coming up the ranks, whether firefighters or other first responders. They bring their combined years of experience and skills to the classroom and into the field, teaching classes together for the Alabama Fire College. “Knowing each other so well is a tremendous benefit for the students,” says Heathe. “If one of us is having trouble explaining a topic in class or a student doesn’t understand one explanation, nine times out of 10 the other of us can fill in that communication barrier.”
They also teach in the community, including fire prevention, CPR, and other lifesaving skills to the public and in the schools. So now the family history has come full circle, back where it started, with a Watkins serving the City of Mountain Brook.
“This community is great,” says Heathe. “The citizens truly appreciate the professionalism and hard work we put into the job. “After Hurricane Sally, Mountain Brook sent a fire truck and crew of four, including myself, to assist Orange Beach Fire. The fact that the City of Mountain Brook fully supported our efforts only confirmed how wonderful this place is.”
“There is a painting that Terry Manier, a Hoover firefighter, made in which Dad posed on their ladder truck with another fireman. A lot of departments (including mine) have the painting hanging in the station. To this day if I see someone looking at it I will point and say, ‘That’s my dad.’”
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