New Charleston Chief Has Rebuilding Process Under Way

Tom Carr, who will be formally sworn in this afternoon, already is on the job

Tom Carr always planned on moving to Charleston someday. But he assumed he would be in his golden years by then, spending his days in a rocking chair and dozing off while staring at the glittering ocean waters.

Carr arrived in the Holy City on Monday, but he's barely had time to sit down.

As Charleston's new fire chief, he is taking on a job he never expected to have, far away from the Maryland fire department where he had assumed he would end his career. At age 54, he's back to living with his parents while hunting for a new home.

"This is quite different than I had planned," Carr said with a chuckle.

Carr changed course to take the reins of a fire department still grieving and rebuilding from last year's Sofa Super Store blaze that killed nine city firefighters. The challenge appealed to him, as did the chance to make a difference.

To that end, he has hit the ground running.

Carr, his wife, Anne, and their two dogs arrived in Charleston about 48 hours after his retirement party in Montgomery County, Md. He got into town just in time to catch the Redskins game and go to sleep. He planned to rest on Tuesday, but instead ended up going into work a day early.

He sat in on a rookie training class and then tagged along while the newbies visited the sofa store site.

They stood on the scarred earth, stared at the nine flags and listened to the words of two fire captains who battled the blaze that night. Chris Villarreal led the first crew in; Mark Davis, the last crew out alive.

Carr described the captains' talks as a "moving, powerful experience" and an invaluable tool for teaching the importance of firefighter safety. "They are just so passionate about this not happening again, and that lessons be learned."

The specter of the fire still hangs over the department, but Carr said he also senses a desire to move forward, to take the department to the next level. The exact course to get there is still being charted, as Carr has to see what's working and what's not before drafting a blueprint for the future.

"We have to develop a vision as an organization," he said. "First I've got to figure out what's going on and what the priorities are."

Carr will be formally sworn in at 2:30 p.m. today in a ceremony at the Gaillard Auditorium. He is already looking ahead to next week, when he begins a series of station house visits to meet with front-line firefighters and get their take on the department. He plans to hit all shifts and speak openly with every crew.

"I think its really important to do that, especially here," he said. Then he smiled. "And they don't have to worry about retribution for what they say, because I don't know anybody's name yet."

In a marked departure from past fire chiefs, Carr has already reached out to the local firefighters union and its new president, Engineer Bill Haigler, to find ways they can work together. In fact, the rookies' visit to the sofa store site was Haigler's idea, he said.

Haigler said his exchanges with Carr have mainly been brief and informational in nature, but it's a start. "I think we've got someone now who actually has our best interests at heart," he said.

Ronnie Classen, who served as interim fire chief following Rusty Thomas' departure in June, said he expects to retire by year's end after 38 years with the department. Classen, currently serving as an assistant chief, thinks he is leaving things in good hands with Carr.

"He's got a lot to digest," he said. "But I think he will bring a lot of good to the department."

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or

Republished with permission from The Charleston Post and Courier