July 08--When Al Thomas set out looking for a challenge in 1978 at age 18 and decided to volunteer with the Glynn County Fire Department, he was not sure where the decision would lead him.
A little more than 36 years later, Thomas is set to retire as the department's chief. That day will arrive at the end of July.
Though he hasn't donned his firefighting gear much during the 11 years he's served as chief, Thomas said Monday he is happy for the memories he has amassed at a department that has become much larger than when he started.
"I watched it grow from a small department to what I consider to be a pretty big department," Thomas said.
Since 2003, when he was named interim chief before getting the job permanently a year later, Thomas has managed the day-to-day operations of a department with eight stations around the county and ambulances that also serve the city of Brunswick.
Whether it was the chance to potentially save a life, put out a massive structure fire or the chance to be involved with the 2004 G8 Summit meeting of world leaders on Sea Island, Thomas said he enjoyed every step.
"It has been a lot of fun. It's a rewarding job," Thomas said.
Along the way, he has learned how important teamwork is in overcoming the always changing situations in which firefighters find themselves.
"No two emergencies are alike," Thomas said.
To him, firefighters are like a family, something he said he has seen in every community he visits.
"The fire service is rich in tradition and history," Thomas said. "When you get it in your blood, it is hard to get it out."
That is something he has learned during his time as chief, when jumping into a burning building is no longer part of the job description.
"I've missed it. I enjoy fighting fires," Thomas said.
Thinking back, a few stick out in his mind.
One in particular was a fire in Sea Palms on St. Simons Island during a snowstorm in 1989.
"We don't get to fight a lot of fires in the snow," Thomas said.
But the most rewarding aspect of his job was always when he was able to help someone in need.
"When we see somebody, it's at one of their worst times," Thomas said.
Being in a position to help them at that point is something that makes the stress of being a firefighter and paramedic worth it, he added.
Those same situations have also shown Thomas how caring the community he serves is.
It makes it all that much harder to leave the department.
"It is hard after all this time to just turn around and walk away," Thomas said.
But having more time to spend with his wife and son, who is about to graduate from high school, also sounds pretty nice to Thomas.
Retirement will not be the end of his working days.
After taking care of a few things around the house and perhaps taking a vacation, Thomas said he plans to find another job, one that may not require quite as much time.
"I'm still young enough to keep pretty active," Thomas said.
-- Reporter Michael Hall writes about public safety, environment and other local topics. Contact him at email@example.com, on Facebook or at 265-8320, ext. 320.
Copyright 2014 - The Brunswick News, Ga.