One lesson Paul Rust learned during his time with the Waxahachie Fire Department is that jittery firefighters and snakes don’t go together.

Rust, a battalion chief with the department, departs June 12 to take a new assignment as assistant fire chief with the city of Weatherford. As he makes preparations to leave, he recalls an encounter Fire Marshal Dennis Crecelius had with the belly-crawling reptile.

“One of the weirdest calls that I have ever been on is that one time we were called to get a snake out of a refrigerator, which was pretty comical. One of the guys that went on the call is now the fire marshal, Dennis Crecelius. Dennis does not have any love for snakes and in his opinion the only good snake is a dead snake,” Rust said.

“Somehow this snake had gotten inside of this refrigerator and the people inside this house were not going to let us leave without taking the snake,” he said. “They told us that if we had to destroy the refrigerator that would be fine so long as the snake goes. We pulled the refrigerator out onto the back patio and started using tools to disassemble it.

Between the plastic liner and the metal box that the fridge is in, there is a little void – and that’s where the snake was.

“Dennis was in there poking it with a stick trying to get it and he was afraid that it was going to come out on his feet,” Rust said. “We had made a big scene with the fire truck being parked out front and all the neighbors had gathered to watch us get this snake. So behind us was a garden hose and I told everyone to be quiet.

“I grabbed a small length of (the hose) and flicked it up the inside of Dennis’ leg like something hit him. So he took that stick, trying to get that garden hose off of him thinking it was a snake. All the neighbors and kids were laughing, but eventually we disposed of the snake. All it turned out to be a small rat snake.”

Rust’s career in Waxahachie started about 16 years ago when the department hired him just after he had graduated from Collin County Community College Fire Academy. His interest in serving as a firefighter grew from having seen his father, Randy Rust, serve for 32 years as a Mesquite firefighter before retiring as a lieutenant.

“Seeing him at the station when he was on duty and I just really remember the camaraderie that firefighters seem to enjoy being around each other,” Rust said. “With firefighters there is really a special bond. You really don’t see that with a lot of occupations. Because of the nature of the job, it is different. You spend every third day at the fire station and spend a lot of Thanksgivings and Christmases together. These guys on the shift you’re on have really become like family to you.

“I started off at 19 as a volunteer in Sachse, a small town of about 500 people back then,” he said. “So at 19 I was a volunteer and that is when I got to make calls and see the other side and the dynamics of the firehouse, going out and getting to help people. Sometimes it is the worst day in people’s lives and you get to help in that situation and do some good.”

During his time in Waxahachie, Rust has moved up and been trusted with more responsibilities along the way. The past four years he’s served as battalion chief, learning how to run a department from an administrative viewpoint. He’s also been tasked with organizing different training exercises for rescue, fires and medical scenarios. 

He expresses his thanks to Chief David Hudgins, Assistant Chief Randall Potter and Crecelius for their help along the way. In his new position he will oversee the entire day-to-day operations of the department.

“There has been some surprise in my leaving. A lot of guys have expressed, ‘We wish you were not going but we do understand that it is a great opportunity.’ Most people knew my ultimate career goal is to be a fire chief. I feel like this is the next step for me in achieving this goal,” he said.

“Some have razzed me, calling me a short-timer and picking at me in typical firefighter fashion,” he said. “It’s like leaving a family of 50 and going to another family of 50. I’m hopeful that I can maintain both and continue these relationships. I really just wish the best for this department. The future is really bright here and there are lots of firefighters that are leaders here.”

Education has been a focus for Rust, who has earned an associate’s of fine arts degree from Collin College in fire science and a bachelor’s of fine arts degree from Western Illinois University in fire administration. He will next start online course work at Oklahoma State University for a master’s in fire administration.

“I still like to think I’m the same guy who started off doing shift work. I still find myself identifying with them,” he said. “I think no matter what occupation, when you become a supervisor, people look at you differently. People wonder what type of boss you are going to be and that is human nature to wonder. 

“I hope that when I leave that the guys will view me as an advocate for them,” he said. “You hear people describing football coaches and you hear the term ‘player’s coach.’ … Well, I hope … they will think of me as a firefighter’s chief.”

E-mail Andrew at andrew.branca@wninews.com