You could say Bentonville Fire Chief Brent Boydston has been around a while. He's worked for the city of Bentonville for more than 38 years now, which makes him the longest tenured employee in the city's history.
But even before he arrived as a volunteer fire fighter at 800 S.W. A St., Bentonville Fire Station One, Boydston spent a lot of time on that same spot back when it was a city park -- the one with a swimming pool. In those days, he played baseball at that park during the day and hauled hay in the evenings.
In the years since, Boydston has done a little -- no, a lot -- of everything you could do at a fire station. He started as an EMT, then spent a decade and a half as a paramedic, served time as the Fire Marshal, captain, assistant chief and finally chief since 2012.
"Nothing in the fire service or EMS is repetitive," Boydston says. "No emergency is exactly alike. That was intriguing. Every patient is different. Every fire is a bit of a different twist -- the state that the fire is in, depending on how you attack it, and learning all the things about it to pass it on to the newer generation."
Today marks the end of this big chapter of his life as Boydston retires and passes the baton, and the fire department's 125 employees, off to Justin Scantlin. It also coincides with the station having reached its goal of earning the Insurance Services Office Class 1 rating earlier this month. The score reflects how prepared a community is for fires, according to Bankrate.
"In the 37 years I've been associated with the department, it's been a primary goal of the four previous chiefs to bring the city of Bentonville to an ISO Class 1 fire rating," says Deputy Chief K. Kevin Boydston, Brent's brother. "Bentonville was able to attain the highest fire rating due to Brent's tenacity and unwavering commitment to providing the best possible service to this city."
Dean Scullawl first coached Boydston as center for the boys' high school basketball team, but later worked with him while he was on the city council and Boydston was moving up the ranks in the fire service.
"His contributions to his friends and to the city are just phenomenal," Scullawl says. "He's been a very good friend to many people and the extent to which he's willing to help, it's beyond belief at times."
Among his strengths as fire chief, Scullawl says, is the willingness to jump in and help people regardless of whether he's on duty or knows the person in need of help. He's seen Boydston put others ahead of his own interests time and time again.
"He makes friends very easily and gets respect from people because of his actions," Scullawl says. "Brent is a very unique man, and Bentonville is lucky to have him."
He's confident that retirement won't sever that connection between Boydston and the city; he imagines that Brent will always be just a phone call away.
Former Arkansas State Rep. Tim Summers says Chief Boydston's career is indicative of what people who work hard can achieve.
"The nature of what the Bentonville Fire Department has become -- they've got many more firemen now, are very professional, and it reflects the leadership and integrity ... and culture that Brent brought to the fire department," he says. "He's so well respected and thought of. You can trust him. He just brings an aura of trust to what he does."
Summers says Boydston has earned that community respect through years of being respectful to its members. Once the scorekeeper for those high school basketball games, Summers watched Brent grow from a good athlete and boy into a man willing to help his neighbors.
"I take a tremendous amount of pride in him and how well he's done," Summers says. In the pandemic, Boydston "made it really easy to get vaccinations and put some (extra) hours in. It wasn't what he had to do, he did it to get people taken care of."
A BENTONVILLE BOY
As far as Brent Boydston is concerned, he pretty much grew up here, even though he, his parents and two brothers were living in Joplin, Mo., for the first eight or nine years of his life.
"Growing up, our father had several friends (who) were policemen and firemen," Kevin Boydston says. "Oftentimes, he would take us with him to the police or fire station to visit." It's possible those early experiences planted a seed of interest in the career, he says.
After their father's death, the family moved to Bella Vista, where his parents' friends lived. His mom got a job at the Walmart home office, and he and his brothers started school in Bentonville when Brent was in fifth grade.
During his teenage years, Brent's true hobbies were hunting and fishing, his brother says. But he also played first base in baseball and center in basketball.
One year, he was the smallest kid in junior high and the next year he was the tallest, eventually rising to 6 foot 6 inches. Dean Scullawl was his basketball coach for the junior high years and just happened to move up into coaching for high school as Boydston did. The circumstances made him Boydston's coach for all but one grade of those six years and extremely influential in his young life.
"He was happy-go-lucky, happy all the time," Scullawl says. "At that time, he did not have a serious bone in his body."
Being so tall, lanky and thin meant Boydston got "banged around a bit" on the court, but Scullawl says he held his own and became an integral part of the team mostly due to his upbeat demeanor, competitive nature and enjoyment of the game.
"He was never negative or down about things and seemed like he always had a positive attitude with his teammates," Scullawl says.
Tim Summers was always impressed by the family as he saw Boydston's mom work a couple jobs to support her boys and thinks she did a fine job of raising them all.
"If they ever got in trouble, I never knew about it," Summers says. It's no mystery where Boydston's excellent work ethic came from: "It had to start with his mother."
After graduating from Bentonville High School, Boydston decided to work for Walmart himself, where he spent a year and a half.
One afternoon while on a swing shift, he went down to the Frisco Mall parking lot to play Frisbee with his buddies, as he often did, and met Kim, who was there with her friends. That fortuitous meeting would eventually lead to the couple getting married in 1989 and having two children together.
But in that phase of life, Boydston was actively making plans for his career and searching for a way out of Walmart. He had decided to join the Navy and went through the entire entry process, even had a departure date in hand, when a buddy asked him to join a softball game.
At that game, Boydston blew out his right knee and consequently the Navy wouldn't allow him to join the service after all. It was disappointing at the time, but soon after, a school friend named Larry Horton told Boydston that the fire department was in need of volunteers.
"He said, 'Just try it. You don't have to stay,' but he talked me into trying it," Boydston says. "It was not on my radar until Larry asked me to give it a try. It was one of those things that I just fell in love with it.
"Once you get into it, the training and everything that went with it, I never imagined I would do anything else."
Boydston joined the Bentonville fire service at 20 years old. He became an EMT, then went to paramedic school, and graduated in 1988.
"Once he started work for the fire department, he developed tremendous patience and calmness about him; he was so focused on making sure he did the right thing," Scullawl says.
"Brent put himself through paramedic school while he was a volunteer with the department and working a full-time job," Kevin Boydston says. "While serving in the volunteer ranks, he was promoted to captain and never missed a call. He was always at the fire station doing whatever was needed. His goal was to be a Bentonville fireman, and nothing would stand in his way."
It was thrilling, the feeling that Boydston got when responding to a call. That's what hooked him in the early days. But it was a sobering business, all the same.
Boydston says he'll never forget the first fatality he responded to as a paramedic, the result of a car wreck. All these years later, it's still vivid in his mind.
Learning to work through the emotions that come with those heavy tasks was crucial to carrying on in the career, and it's something he councils younger firefighters to do, too.
"I had good colleagues that if you're in trouble (with thoughts), you talk it out, you visit, you work through it," Boydston says. Talking to them will help you through a lot, as long as you don't make a habit of bottling it up. "Fire service is unique. You are venturing off into a profession where you're going to live with a bunch of ladies and men you didn't choose to live with. They're your family, so use them as family. Talk to them. If something is bothering you ... don't take it home. The longer you sit on it, the worse it gets."
He learned to focus on the task at hand and attending to the issue, rather than fixating on who the person is. That's why, if he's out and about and someone recognizes him as the firefighter who saved them on their worst day, he's likely not to remember them by their face. But should they describe what happened to them, he knows immediately who they are.
After being a paramedic for 15 years, Boydston followed an opportunity to train as a fire marshal. It was a good shift for his family life while his kids were young, he says. Getting off the grueling 24 hours on, 48 hours off schedule and on to an eight hour work day meant he could make it to his son's traveling baseball games on the weekends and other important things.
Summers recalls this phase fondly, when Boydston would happily pop over to his and others' houses just to change out their smoke alarms for them. He was so tall he could do it without breaking out the ladder, he says. "He's just a super nice guy and a good leader."
But what drove Boydston's continued climbing of the professional ladder was a habit of striving to always learn more.
He attended the National Fire Academy two or three times, took chemistry and was always looking for more continuing education. When the Northwest Arkansas Regional Hazardous Materials Response Team began, with members from all the fire departments in the area, Boydston served on it, too.
It wasn't a straight shot to becoming fire chief. During one changeover of the fire chief position, Boydston applied and didn't get the gig at the time, but became assistant chief in 2001. Scullawl advised him to be patient. He told Brent that he was doing everything right, that his experience was growing, and his time would come. Then it did, in 2012.
LEADER FOR A NEW ERA
When Brent Boydston joined the fire service, Bentonville had a dozen firefighters and one station. Now there are seven stations and 125 full-time fire fighters to keep up with the region that's grown wildly in the last few decades.
Among the biggest accomplishments in Boydston's tenure as fire chief is his instrumental role in getting a new fire training facility built.
Boydston's quick to defer any true credit, since the matter was a bond issue that Bentonville citizens passed in a vote. But he guided the department through a lengthy planning process and spearheaded decision-making for the priorities, helping everyone understand the qualities that would be most important to have in the new facility that the city will use long term.
This one is a clean burn facility. In basic terms, that means turning away from conducting Class A burns -- those that use straw, pallets and wood. Instead they use propane gas and less water in their practices, leading to more fire training evolutions in a shorter amount of time.
Something Boydston couldn't have planned for, though, was the Bentonville Fire Department's role in aiding the community through the covid pandemic.
"It was a huge learning curve for all of us," Boydston says. "The main thing ... was making sure that our people stayed safe and stayed virus free to make sure we could still serve the public."
To do so, they had to arrange enough protective equipment and never let an ambulance back in service until it was totally sanitized. They hit up the city for a machine that could do it for them, speeding the entire process up. At times, the fire department was short handed, but Boydston asked for overtime clearance for his folks so that they could continue to have enough people to serve all Bentonville citizens who needed them.
The first year of the pandemic, Boydston played a crucial role in the Mayor's Milk Initiative, in which nearly 5,000 gallons of unused milk was distributed to those in need at the Bentonville Fire Department. The milk deliveries ordinarily went to schools, but would have been wasted otherwise due to the pandemic lockdown.
He also helped organize covid vaccination programs for the public.
Boydston and his crew partnered with Northwest Medical Center to provide a number of drive-through vaccination clinics in the fire department's parking lot. They had so many people sign up that they had to coordinate with the Walmart Home Office to direct the car line in a circle and move everyone through in a safe and organized fashion.
The first clinic reached 500 people. In others, they helped more than 1,000 people in a day. They conducted roughly six of the clinics total.
Speaking about it now, Boydston is matter of fact. He's entirely grateful to the paramedics and volunteer nurses, to all the people who came in on their days off, but his attitude is that it's simply what you do when your job is to serve citizens.
Doing so has cost him some personal moments over the years as, like all fire fighters must sometimes do, he's missed holidays and birthdays and difficult moments when his children needed him or wanted him.
"I don't regret the trail I've taken," Boydston says. "But I owe a lot to my family. You've got to have a strong family and partner to make this profession long term."
Kevin Boydston says that in his brother's 11 years as fire chief, Brent has amassed several accomplishments that have raised the level of service to the community.
"From the beginning, Brent's aspiration was to be chief," he says. "His commitment and dedication to this community would allow him to (become it)."
Rising to this occasion is something Dean Scullawl hopes Boydston will take pride in.
"It took hard work and dedication to be what he is," Scullawl says. "His evolving from high school to what he is now is truly a story that many people would be proud to say their children did, that it made them proud."
Brent Colby Boydston
Date and place of birth: Kansas City, Mo., May 10, 1964
Family: Wife Kim Boydston, son Hunter Boydston and his wife, Ashton; daughter Hannah Boydston. Grandchildren Callen and Collier Boydston.
The first thing I'm going to do in retirement: Schedule a retirement trip with my wife to the Caribbean.
My favorite place in Northwest Arkansas: My hunting property in Chester.
The most interesting or unique animal I've hunted: Arkansas alligator in Gillett.
A good hunting story of mine: In 2005, my hunting partner for the last 48 years, Ron Tedford, and I went to Alberta, Canada, and hunted black bears. That was the furthest I've ever traveled. We camped north of the Tar Sands, close to the Arctic Circle.
The best fish I ever caught: was a Butterfly Peacock Bass in the Florida everglades. I don't know if it was the best, but it was definitely the most unique.
If I had an extra hour in the day, I would: be able to get more of my honey-do's completed.
What I'm most proud of: My family.
Three words to sum me up: Loyal, hardworking, compassionate.
How long do firemen train for the job? EMT basic firefighting is an eight-week course in Camden to get certified as a firefighter, that gets you an understanding of how a fire works and all that. But it takes another year and a half to be fully trained up. To operate a fire truck, it's (an additional) six months to a year learning process to drive it safely to an emergency.
What are some firemen's duties that the average person may not expect? We'll help with anything. We're designated rescuers for the city of Bentonville, performing trench, confined space and swift water rescue. Most people call us to help if there's a broken water line or pipe. We're here to serve.