Changes Part of Healing in Charleston

BALTIMORE, Md. -- Things are changing at the Charleston Fire Department, and there are no signs of the process slowing down.

In fact, Charleston Chief Tom Carr sees things ramping up.

At Firehouse Expo this past Saturday, Carr credited his firefighters for the progress.

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"We've made some incredible progress, and we continue to thrive," he said.

The former chief of Montgomery County, Md. Fire and Rescue went back to his birthplace to guide the department following the loss of nine firefighters who perished in a furniture store fire in 2007.

"I was on a listening campaign when I arrived," he told the crowd. "They weren't trusting me. They weren't trusting anyone."

He realized it would take time to get people to open up. So, he waited and listened.

"I told them they shouldn't be afraid to talk," he said, adding that eventually, they started opening up.

They would soon find out that they would be part of the decision-making process.

"I operate by committee," he explained. "If it affects them, they should be involved."

When the group started writing SOPs for the department, the chief said he saw they had a copy from Montgomery County. "I didn't give it to them, and I told them I wanted them to write one themselves to fit Charleston. I didn't want them to use the one from Montgomery."

Committees also were formed to design fire trucks, examine equipment and to choose uniforms.

While getting to know his firefighters and lending a shoulder as well as an ear, Carr also was dealing with an issue himself -- Parkinson's.

But, he forges ahead at the helm. And, said his goal is to stay there for at least the next five years.

"Parkinson's is difficult to diagnose," he said, adding that since a gene has been ruled out, exposure is suspected.

"It may have been something I've been exposed to (at fires) over the past 40 years."

Carr warned firefighters to be careful.

"After I announced I had Parkinson's, I got e-mails from four Montgomery County firefighters that they also have it."

While his voice may be raspy, Carr remains passionate about leading the Charleston Fire Department.

And, having the right leaders in place has made a big difference.

As firefighters were struggling with their emotions as they continued to show up for work to protect their citizens, their actions were under constant scrutiny by the local media and bloggers.

To assist with the deluge, Mark Ruppel was hired as the department's public information officer.

A volunteer firefighter from a neighboring community, Ruppel was familiar with members of the department as he had assisted with planning the memorial service.

Ruppel told the audience he was honored to become part of the department, and to tell people of the progress.

He reminded the crowd that before the ashes at the sofa store had cooled, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley promised that the fire department would rise, and become a national model.

Ruppel said the mayor has never wavered in his support for the fire department.

All the new uniforms, equipment and guidelines would be for naught if those supposed to use them were left alone to grieve.

The Charleston Firefighter Support Team -- established with the guidance of a group from FDNY -- continues to offer counseling as crews struggle to move on.

"This has been a very, very emotional time for our firefighters," Ruppel said, adding that the community also is still healing.

Carr said he believes the department is pleased with the progress thus far. "It's important to have the people affected be involved. I told them they would enjoy making decisions that are best for Charleston."