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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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.