*Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series about Baton Rouge’s first responders.
Cesare Louis strained on his tip toes as flood waters surged down O’Neal Lane, the growing current threatening to topple the 34-year-old firefighter after severe storms overwhelmed the region in mid-August.
Louis was enjoying his vacation days when flood waters submerged the neighborhoods surrounding Baton Rouge Fire Station 17 on Old Hammond Highway. Vacation or not, Louis knew he needed to help.
Partnering with two volunteers from Houma, Louisiana, Louis alerted residents of the impending danger and helped more than 50 people evacuate their homes by boat. Most of the evacuees were silent as the shock of the water’s sudden onslaught set in, Louis said.
For Louis, being able to provide a moment of peace during a troublesome experience was a natural decision. Louis said serving others when ability and opportunity allow has always been instilled in him.
This same drive to serve led Louis to a career with the Baton Rouge Fire Department five years ago. Louis was working in the casino industry when a co-worker approached him about the possibility of applying to become a firefighter.
As Louis considered the opportunity, he realized working as a firefighter could be both a practical career step and a rewarding profession.
“You think about…‘If I left this Earth, what would I leave behind and how would I be remembered?’” Louis said. “Firefighting became one of those careers that’s something you can do to be of service, something that’s honorable.”
Louis passed the department’s rigorous application process and began working primarily with Station 17. Looking back, Louis said the experience has been even better than he imagined when he first submitted his application.
Louis said his career has taught him to see people and situations differently, and has shown him how to be more patient and accepting of people’s differences. The department serves all residents, Louis said, and white, black, rich or poor, everyone needs 911.
Working as a firefighter has also provided Louis access to a broad range of knowledge and the opportunity to grow within the department. Professional firefighting is a 30-year career path, Louis said, and firefighters can promote within the department to become arson specialists, fire inspectors and more.
The department’s work cycle, which requires firefighters to work three 24-hour shifts every nine days, also affords the firefighters the freedom to pursue other professions and interests. Outside the station, Louis owns and operates the information technology services company Dot Calm, which he founded in 2005.
These outside interests enhance the team’s work environment, Louis said.
Working 24-hour shifts creates a unique camaraderie among the crews, and allows the firefighters to share their interests and important life moments with one another. Louis said he often dispenses IT advice to his fellow firefighters, while another co-worker frequently discusses his restoration work on classic cars.
Like any team environment, the close quarters and contrasting personalities can lead to differences of opinion, Louis said. No matter what disagreements may arise, a sense of brotherhood and inherent trust remains.
In July 2015, Louis responded to a call involving the drowning death of a 7-year-old boy. Louis said the incident brought to mind his 6-year-old daughter Lyric, and he wept after returning from the call.
The job can be tough, and the crew regularly debriefs after difficult calls to ensure the firefighters’ mental and emotional wellness, Louis said. Crew members are encouraged to discuss the incident, and even shout or take a personal day to reach catharsis, he said.
In spite of its challenges, Louis said seeing the relief in people’s eyes when his truck arrives on scene makes experiencing the hard days worth it.
“There are far more great experiences that outweigh any negative experience,” Louis said. “To have somebody who’s lifeless and you can contribute to bringing them back, there’s nothing like that in the world.”
Louis and his crew are currently working from Fire Station 13 on Sharp Road after Station 17 flooded during the August deluge. Louis has spent most of his firefighting career in that station, and seeing its buckling floors, swamped kitchen and waterlogged personal effects was disheartening, he said.
The job comes first though, and Louis’s crew is focused on continuing to serve the community, he said.
As Louis advances his career as a firefighter, he hopes to leave a positive legacy for his daughter. Louis said he wants Lyric to grow up understanding life is about more than personal gain.
“I hope that she understands that it’s always okay to help,” he said. “If you can make a difference, make it.”
With Louis as a role model, it’s a lesson she’ll easily learn.
Photo by Greta Jines.