Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 19, 2012
By Shavonne Potts
SALISBURY — It’s hard to imagine a world without the ability to make a 911 call for emergency help. But early on in Dorsia Atkinson’s fire career, he was 911.
Atkinson, 79, known to some as Dolf, was a young volunteer firefighter with the Landis Fire Department back when there were only four stations in Rowan County.
Dorsia, pronounced “Dorsey,” retired a few days ago, and reminisced Wednesday with fellow firefighters about the “good ol’ days” when emergency calls went to his home.
“Someone like Dorsia only comes once in a lifetime,” Fire Chief Reed Linn said.
In the days before an established 911 dispatch system in the southern part of Rowan County, two homes got fire calls. One was Atkinson’s.
When the calls came in, Dorsia or his wife, Ruth, would answer.
Call the funeral home
Before that, the calls went to the funeral home because it was the only business open 24 hours a day.
The funeral home would push the fire siren, sending firefighters flocking to the station. The firefighters would then call the funeral home for a location on the fire.
Since Atkinson was around in the early days, he can share stories with the younger guys about how firefighters used to battle a fire, Linn said.
Atkinson served as treasurer, collecting dues for the department. He brought his records to Linn’s office and placed them on the chief’s desk.
“He said, ‘I’m going to retire. I’m calling it quits,’ ” Linn said.
Linn thought the longtime volunteer was joking until he saw the boxes of records.
“You joined because your father was a firefighter?” Linn asked Atkinson.
“No. I joined because they had a softball team,” Atkinson said, laughing.
Atkinson enjoyed the game and became interested after learning the fire department had a team.
Atkinson’s father, Henry, was a charter member of the Landis Fire Department.
The Landis Fire Department was just 10 years old when Atkinson joined.
The department had one truck, and the station was at the corner of North Main Street and West Ryder Avenue, now the home of a Shell gas station.
Atkinson began to tell a story about an overpressurized fire hose that sent firefighters flying through the air. Linn chimed in to help finish the story about how a couple of firefighters were battling a house fire when they asked for more water. The hose operator gave them too much, and the pressure picked the firefighters up off the ground, with the force of the water sending the front door flying through the house and out the back.
Jobs at the mill
Atkinson and other firefighters worked at the local mill. When the fire siren rang out, an alarm went off at the mill, where the owners allowed firefighters to leave and return once the fire was extinguished.
Former Fire Chief Ronnie Spears worked alongside Atkinson in the mill and on fire calls. “He’s a trip,” Spears said.
The firefighters can all count on Atkinson for a laugh or a joke.
On one call, Atkinson and another firefighter were the first to arrive at the station.
But Atkinson never drove.
“I said, ‘Can’t you drive the truck, Bubba?’ ” Atkinson said.
“He said, ‘Only in an emergency,’ ” Atkinson said.
“I said, ‘What the hell do you think this is?’ ”
Atkinson was a firefighter at a time when everyone was a volunteer. The Landis department didn’t begin to hire paid firefighters until the early 2000s.
That’s one of the things that has changed throughout the years.
Another is the turnout gear. Firefighters had rubber coats, rubber boots, plastic helmets and no air packs in those early years.
Atkinson recalled hanging on the tail of the truck alongside other guys en route to a fire. Those who didn’t climb into the cab of the fire truck hung onto the back.
Assistant Fire Chief Dennis Brown told of the early days rushing to put on his turnout gear while a fellow firefighter, hanging onto the back of the truck, held onto him.
Atkinson, ever the storyteller, would sometimes start talking while the others were gearing up for a fire and continue talking as the truck pulled away from the station, Brown said with a laugh.
“I met Dorsia in 1994. He would get a story started,” said fellow firefighter Colin Patterson.
Firefighter Dusty Mills met Atkinson as a rookie firefighter.
“I’m amazed at his stories,” Mills said.
Firefighters found house fires, not with an address, but because “someone on the truck knew the house,” Atkinson said.
Houses and other structures were identified by the family members who lived there or who owned the business.
“Today we associate a place with an address,” Linn said.
Years ago, firefighters couldn’t fight a fire outside town limits.
“We couldn’t go 500 feet beyond the fire hydrant,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson was never one to panic or get too excited, no matter what the type of fire call he responded to. “Always very calm, cool and very collected,” Linn said.
What Atkinson will miss the most is having his wife listen to the scanner at home just before he and the rest of the department’s firefighters head out to a fire.
Contact Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.