Charleston Fire: The Fire Chief

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 department before and after the fire. When I interviewed Chief Thomas, I was not allowed to discuss the specifics of the fatal fire in the furniture store, only the operations before and some changes after the fire.

FIREHOUSE: Does every firefighter have a portable radio?

THOMAS: Every single person that's on duty has a portable radio.

FIREHOUSE: The breathing apparatus that your department has?

THOMAS: Scott.

FIREHOUSE: Is that high-pressure, low-pressure?

THOMAS: That's the 2216, the 30-minute cylinders.

FIREHOUSE: Do you have a PASS device incorporated or is there a separate PASS device?

THOMAS: We use the Super 2 PASS device.

FIREHOUSE: Is there any specific gear you use?

THOMAS: We use Fire Dex.

FIREHOUSE: You carry booster, 1½-inch and 2½-inch fire hose?

THOMAS: That's correct.

FIREHOUSE: Do you have a good water system in the city?

THOMAS: Our water system through Charleston Water Systems is very good.

FIREHOUSE: How many dispatchers are on duty?

THOMAS: We have two on duty in the morning, two on duty on the second shift and one on duty on the third shift.

FIREHOUSE: What is the number of calls annually that the department responds to?

THOMAS: About 5,000 to 6,000 and that includes emergency medical calls, miscellaneous calls, fire calls, false alarms. Probably 68% are emergency medical calls.

FIREHOUSE: Do you have mutual aid agreements?

THOMAS: Tri-countywide and statewide, signed mutual aid agreements.

FIREHOUSE: Are there a lot of departments close to your borders?

THOMAS: That's about 12-15 different departments.

FIREHOUSE: Are there good-sized water mains where the fire occurred?


FIREHOUSE: Is that an older area?

THOMAS: We have good water pressure and big-sized mains.

FIREHOUSE: Is there any type of procedure when there is a Mayday?

THOMAS: It's in writing and we had practiced that before.

FIREHOUSE: How does a fire dispatch occur?

THOMAS: We have the CAD (computer-aided dispatch) system. The initial call goes out to the closest stations. If the chief on scene needs more units, then he has the right to call for whichever trucks he wants, which is probably the closest next trucks.

FIREHOUSE: Would any of the companies be assigned as a rapid intervention team or a FAST team?


FIREHOUSE: Is that the third engine company?

THOMAS: The third company in is what we call the RIT team. We used to call it the standby company.

FIREHOUSE: Do all the companies have a training period every day?

THOMAS: Every day Monday through Friday 9:30 to 11:30. Once a month, we hand out our training schedule. Everybody is training on the same thing every day. When the chief walks in to check on the training from 9:30 to 11:30, if today is airpacks, then everybody's training on airpacks.

FIREHOUSE: Is there anybody that's still off-duty because of the fire, for psychological or other reasons?

THOMAS: No. Everybody is back to work.

FIREHOUSE: Had units ever been to the location of the sofa store? Have there ever been any calls that you know of?

THOMAS: Yes. There was a call there. I don't have the exact date. There was a call a couple of months before for apparent electrical short.

FIREHOUSE: Is there any type of system that you had used for accountability or personnel accounting at the scene?

THOMAS: We have a policy in effect for a PAR (personnel accountability report) and where all battalions chiefs and the chiefs on duty get together. They know their people and we have a card system with a personal ID card. They actually take their ID cards and put it in the front seat of their fire truck every day for the people who are on duty.

The RIT team that you referred to, they used to call standby, it was a little more passive. Now they're aggressive. Now they're dispatching an extra engine. That extra engine is assigned RIT. Now it's a little more proactive.

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.

We've already made it better. The assessment team came in with good recommendations. We have a three-engine call on a house fire. We send three engines with the third engine being the designated RIT team. Before, we would send in two, and as soon as they said they had smoke showing, the standby company would go and be the RIT team. Now we're sending them on the initial call. We're sending a fourth engine, another battalion chief and an EMS unit on the working fire.

We will continue to look at the recommendations and put them into play to best to fit the city of Charleston Fire Department. That's what we're committed to do. We will make the Charleston Fire Department better in honor of those nine, working with the assessment team and our own people within our community because I cannot leave out the community because the community wants to know exactly what's going on in the fire service just like the fire department does.

FIREHOUSE: Is there any other specifics?

THOMAS: We have two engines on order. One will be here in probably January. One will be here in March. Since we're not using boosters on inside structure fires anymore, we're looking at mounting a deck gun in place of one of the booster wheels. We're going to leave one of the booster wheels on the rig for trash. If we decide to go to the larger-diameter hose, the four-inch hose, we can make that happen.

FIREHOUSE: It's very difficult to have one loss. You just had nine. How has it been for you personally to see all this? Everything sort of comes through you. How difficult has it been in the last several weeks for you?

THOMAS: This has been the most difficult part of my life. Does it get better? A little bit. You go back before it happened and you say it was a regular normal day. I remember talking to Louis Mulkey on the phone when the battalion chiefs called and Louis was on duty. Louis in his own smart way was in the background when I was talking to the battalion chief. I was asking the battalion chief a question. He called me on my cell phone. He asked me a question. I was answering the question and Louis was mouthing off the background. I said put his smart-aleck on the phone, I need to talk to him about something anyhow. I got him on the phone and I talked to him and said this conversation is over. I hung the phone up. Two minutes later, the phone rings back and it shows you who calls and it says Battalion 3, and I had said yes, sir, chief, what you need. It was Louis on the phone. He grabbed the chief's phone. He just said I just want to hear you, call me chief, goodbye. Those are the kind of things, Harvey, that help me get through. This has been the most difficult part of my life because this is all I've ever done. I've never done anything else but be a fireman in the Charleston Fire Department.

FIREHOUSE: Because of my injured hip I was not able to attend the memorial service. Was it more difficult or was it easier with the amount of firefighters that came to attend from around the country?

THOMAS: That was the most amazing. I never seen anything like that in my life. You come to work and you hear about it happening in Boston, New York, Los Angeles. You never think about it, then it happened here. To see all the support, it was unbelievable at that memorial. After 9/11, we were at the pile. We visited fire stations. Ladder 4, that was the first place we went. We went inside, my son and my mechanic. We said how sorry and we drove home. And did I forget about that? No, I didn't. I never thought it would happen here.

FIREHOUSE: I appreciate your taking the candor and the time to talk to me and I appreciate it and I think the firefighters around the country will appreciate it.

THOMAS: It's just amazing. You know, when I leave this place, they always say you leave it better than you found it. You know this mark will stay with me throughout my life, but I will leave this place better than I found it.

Thanks to all these people in this community and this fire department. They'll help me. I can't do it by myself. I know that, but they will and I will leave this place just like these guys left us. We'll leave this place in a great place for the next people to come here. They won't have a lot to do. They won't have a lot to do because we'll have already done it and made it better.