Brazzel retires with “heart of service for others”

Eric Brazzel (left) retired after 32 years as a member of the Ruston Fire Department.

By Amber Barker

College wasn’t for Eric Brazzel. Sitting in a class didn’t thrill him. But he would receive 32 years of education in a different form that changed the course of his life. For more than three decades Brazzel served on the Ruston Fire Department, retiring recently on Aug. 31, providing a life of service and education he will never forget.

“In 1989 I graduated high school and like most thought I had to go to college. I was not the one who really wanted to be in school all the time, I liked to work with my hands,” Brazzel said. “I was steadily trying to figure out what I could do and not have to go to college.”

Happenstance changed him. While he was enrolled at Louisiana Tech, Brazzel worked at Walmart in the automotive department and met a man that introduced a life-changing opportunity.

“There was a fireman who came in to buy quarts of oil all the time, and I would assist him and eventually befriended him. One day he said they were hiring,” Brazzel recalled. “Of course, I never thought of being a fireman, it wasn’t something I dreamed of. We lived in the country where seeing a truck was rare, so it wasn’t in the back of my mind.”

The fireman who introduced the idea – Tommie Woods, who retired as assistant fire chief in November 2021 after 35 years of service.

“When I first met Eric, Ruston Fire Department was in the process of 8-10 guys retiring, and we were recruiting,” Woods recalled. “I was on duty and saw this young man stocking in the automotive department. He seemed happy, was humming, and getting the job done, and I said we need people just like that.”

That’s when Woods floated the idea. The rest, Woods said, “is history.”

“I didn’t see a reason to look outside of the city when we had good people right here,” said Woods. “Eric has been a really great asset for our department; he’s great with patients and has good bedside manner. He is pretty much like my son, that’s the type of relationship we have.”

After that chance meeting, Brazzel called his buddy Chris Womack – now RFD chief – both applied and were hired at the same time.

“I thought this was great, I won’t have to go to school anymore. And the first thing they did was send me to school,” Brazzel said while laughing. “It’s been a career of education. It’s not the same as being stuck in biology or math class, but on the job training. It’s specialized training they send you to school for, but you’re still there, working, getting paid, so it’s a total different mindset.”

That continuing education afforded him the opportunity to expand his career over the years, starting as a firefighter for 8 years before being promoted to driver of the fire truck where he held that position for 7 years. For two years he served as captain “the First-line supervisor” responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations. He then moved to fire prevention/public education officer, a position that propelled him into the police academy, giving him investigation and arson enforcement capabilities, but  a decision that was tough to make.

“Shift work allows you to have part-time work if you choose. When I gave up shift work to go on days it was a pay cut because I sold real estate on my two days off for Century 21,” he said. “I took a pay cut but could see the picture on the wall in the next 15 years what my retirement was going to be but knew I wouldn’t be able to retire anywhere besides captain. I sacrificed for the short period, as my retirement pay was substantially more than it would’ve been as captain.”

As PEO, Brazzel was the only one in the department responsible to enforce arson and determine the cause/origin of arson, whether it was human introduced – intentional or not.

“I could continue investigation if the fire was intentionally set, follow up, find, and arrest the bad guy,” said Brazzel, who had about 6 convictions in his tenure. “I was the cross trained guy trifecta – fire, EMS, and police.”

He also held the position of internal affairs, a position he doesn’t like to discuss.

“I had to be the bad guy, but I was a good bad guy,” he said with a chuckle.

Serving as PEO for 15 years is one of the positions that reminds Brazzel of one of the most rewarding parts of his job.  

“When I was a public education officer, I helped prepare people if something bad happened. When you have someone who applies what you’ve taught and it worked so they are still alive today – to see what I do is helping, that was rewarding,” he said.

But there’s also the flip side, the challenging aspects that will last forever.

“Watching the people that hurt the most in the crisis they are having, whether car wreck, fire, health issue where a loved one has passed away and seeing it over and over again; children injured in car wreck because of lack of safety concern from parents – those are the hard times,” he said.

One of the many changes throughout the decades in the department and the line of work all together has been the openness to discuss what first responders see daily. Brazzel said that change, along with his family, has helped him cope.

“My family and my support system have helped in sustaining my mental health. When we got hired it was not normal to discuss things bothering you, but now we bring in counselors and it’s not a strange thing to discuss what you and your squad saw and what happened on a call, it helps you,” he said.

There are also personal changes Brazzel can point to from when he began.

“When I was a young fireman, I was hasty and kind of quick to speak and slow to listen. Over my years I’ve learned lessons on that topic,” he said. “I went from being a little young fireman who liked to run around – they’d call me ‘flash’ (a name given by Woods) because I would sprint everywhere. I’ve slowed down.”

Brazzel’s retirement plan won’t entail much slowing down. He plans to combine his 30-plus years of experience and his passion for keeping the public safe. He will continue work with Louisiana Safety Connection, a company he started in 2019, as well as work for Rimkus Consulting Group.

“My position in the department allowed me to see the need for a particular need in our area for fire extinguisher service and kitchen hood suppression,” Brazzel said of the work he will conduct for Louisiana Safety Connection. “And Rimkus Consulting Group hired me to do fire cause and origins and determination. My career as fireman has educated me to investigate fires, know how to evaluate how it started.”

In addition, he’ll follow his passion for motorcycles and spend about six months of the year teaching people how to ride.

“I’ve developed a heart of service for others; if somebody is in need, I’ve always wanted to be the one to step up and help, not always in crisis but even after,” he said. “I’ve always felt a calling to be a servant to help.”

Brazzel noted even though he has other work to fill his time post-retirement, it’s the camaraderie he already misses.

“It’s hard to explain, but it’s like there’s a little hole. They say grandchildren will fill it. I had my first one about a month ago, and I can say he already has,” said Brazzel,  who has been married 25 years and has three children, a daughter in law, and now a grandson.

“I don’t feel sad for retiring, it’s part of the progression of life. I want to be the one who lived a life after retirement.”

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