Charleston Fire: The Fire Chief

Harvey Eisner interviews Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas.


The Charleston Fire Department operates 16 engines and three ladder trucks that serve a population of 110,000 in a 91-square-mile area. Staffing begins at four per rig, but normally there are three total. Chief Rusty Thomas has 31 years of service. The following is a basic interview about the...


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FIREHOUSE: Can I ask you what about things that have changed since the fire?

THOMAS: This department in this community is really one of a kind. It's so unique. I know every single person in the Charleston Fire Department personally. We don't have a badge number on our badges. Everybody gets the same badge. It says Charleston Fire Department on it. That's what has always been done. That's why it's so personal to myself and to my community because the people in Charleston all love the fire department. They take the fire station as belonging to them. Actually, they do because they're taxpayers. But they don't have to make an appointment to go to a fire station. They take their kids to the fire station.

I hired six of the nine guys. I promoted every single one of them that were promoted. I do all the hiring and I do all the promotions with some help on the promotions from my assistant chiefs and input from my battalion chiefs. You think about it. I don't need their pictures. I knew those nine guys just like I know the rest of our other 240. I said it at the memorial. If I ever get to their names, I was going to be fine because if I can tell you a story about every one. I can tell you another story about every single one of them today because that's just how unique Charleston is.

FIREHOUSE: How did the tradition come about and how did you instill that in your people?

THOMAS: The tradition is a long-time tradition. Mike Binkey, his uncle was one of our chiefs. Billy Hutchinson, his mother was our fire prevention officer for 28 years, she didn't retire until 1999. Louis Mulkey, even though Louis had no kinfolk in the Charleston Fire Department, Louis grew up in the Summerville Fire Department. Louis wanted to work in the Charleston Fire Department. And I got a letter. I got a letter from a mother, Michael French's mom, about a month ago. He was only been here a year, a year and a half. That guy tried his hardest to get a job here. He worked at St. Andrews Fire Department. He talked to every single person that he could talk to to get a job here. My mechanic shop is right next to the International House of Pancakes. I go to my mechanic shop maybe once or twice a week. He was sitting over there in the parking lot when he got off duty and waited for me to get out of my car like a little kid and said hey, chief, hey, chief, Michael French, Michael French, don't forget about my application. Every week that guy would do that to get a job here. His mother wrote in the letter how proud he was to have finished the recruit class. A lady came up to me at that funeral when it was over with and she said do you have a policy on when you have to take your uniform off when you're off duty. I said yes, I said we have a policy that you have to be out of your uniform by 9 or 9:30 in the morning. She said just want to let you know Michael French broke that policy every day she said because I didn't care where he was at, he had your uniform on. That's all that kid wanted to do is just work here in the Charleston Fire Department.

And that's the kind of tradition that's here. All three of my assistant chiefs retired last year. Two of them had 42 years. One of them had 38 years, his son Robert O'Donald is one of my battalion chiefs. Robert O'Donald's dad was one of my assistant chiefs who retired. There's been a member of my family in the Charleston Fire Department since 1914. We are high on tradition on everything that we do, from training, uniforms to equipment to trucks and everything. The fire department has only had nine chiefs. There they are right there. We've only had nine chiefs.

FIREHOUSE: What does it mean to you to have to listen to the recommendations from the review committee? What are the some changes that you have made since the fire?

THOMAS: The mayor and the city council and myself decided that we needed someone to come in and take a look and to see how we can make ourselves better. They got an assessment team that came in. If we can make ourselves better, which we will and we already have, then we will do it. I told the mayor this the other day. I'm committed to making any changes safety wise. We've already made changes to make us better to honor those nine guys.