The Gadsden Times, Ala.
May 9—After a long and storied career of braving the kind of danger most people flee from, Robert Dillard retired April 1.
Dillard has worn many hats throughout his life; he was a firefighter for 39 years and since 2001 had been the Attalla Fire & Rescue chief. Dillard also worked nights as a paramedic in Gadsden, doing two jobs for a good chunk of his life.
In addition, he also has taught at Gadsden State, Northeast Community College in Rainsville, Shelton State and the Alabama Fire College in Tuscaloosa, covering subjects ranging from EMT training to firefighting to domestic terrorism training.
“I’ve performed approximately 260 classes in terrorism education all throughout the state and Southeast,” Dillard said. “Some of my best memories were performing at military installations for the state Fire College, going to Redstone Arsenal and the Marines’ logistic base in Albany, Georgia.”
For his enduring efforts to provide safety and security for the community and beyond, Dillard was honored April 22 in a reception by the City of Attalla at the Community Center; Saturday, the Firefighters IAFF Local 2152 and Dillard’s family will host a catered dinner for the Attalla Fire Department and friends in his honor at the Carnes Recreation Center.
It’s well-earned appreciation for a man who has done so much for so many others.
Dillard knew he wanted to help people pretty early on. He participated in Etowah High School’s health occupations program at the vocational school from 1977 until his graduation in 1980. During those years, he rode with the Attalla Fire Department for clinical hours toward his education and to gain experience.
It was at that point that he decided he wanted to become a paramedic. He cited the TV show “Emergency!” which ran from 1972 to 1977 as a big inspiration — not only to him, but to countless people around the nation who entered the profession.
He later graduated from Gadsden State and was among the first to study in the school’s firefighter and paramedic program. From there, he was hired by Attalla in 1982 as a firefighter while continuing his work as a paramedic.
Dillard has three sons —Robert Jr., James Michael and Chris — who followed their father into the firefighting and paramedic professions.
Robert Jr. works in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, James Michael works in Gadsden as a paramedic and Chris started in Gadsden, but transferred a few years back to serve under his father in the Attalla Fire Department.
“I’m very proud of my sons,” Dillard said. “To work as a firefighter, fire chief and paramedic was a great honor, and my sons wanted to do what I do.”
Dillard helped to put out some notable fires during his time behind the hose, including the Highland School fire in 2003 and, more recently, the Gadsden Warehousing fire on Alabama Highway 77 in Attalla in 2019 that was the most costly and destructive in the city’s history — and where Dillard was the first on the scene.
When Dillard got the call for the Gadsden Warehousing fire, he was with other city firefighters about to eat at a local restaurant. When he got the call, quickly left and proceeded toward the scene, he immediately knew it was very bad.
“I could see the smoke in the sky and (in) my initial call to our police dispatcher before I even had sight on the fire, I immediately told her to notify Gadsden, Rainbow City and Southside for mutual aid and to call A-Med Ambulance and have them have all the ambulances they had available en route,” Dillard said.
The fire raged for more than a week, but with help of 118 agencies, 17 counties and more than 2,500 responders, the blaze was tamed — remarkably with no fatalities and only one minor injury, a blistered toe on an Attalla Fire Department worker.
Along with the other fire departments, Dillard was grateful for the EMAs that helped out during that time.
“The EMA was the best, best help,” he said. “I couldn’t thank Miss (Gadsden/Etowah County Emergency Management Director Deborah) Gaither and her crew enough. They worked tirelessly for days and days and days to keep the help coming. And we were so blessed to have a medical response trailer from Cullman onsite for the first week with a medical staff.”
But not all such situations have a happy ending. Helping so many people in difficult times wasn’t something that you just ignored or forgot once you were off the clock, Dillard said.
“I really got to feel the love and the caring for my patients, to the point that a young female on a call I was worked while I was (working in an) ambulance, being so sorrowful over her death, not knowing the family, but (I attended) the funeral because I felt like I needed to be there,” he said.
Over a 39-year career, Dillard has seen the way his profession works change in ways his younger self couldn’t have imagined.
“The technology is just vastly overwhelming, amazing,” he said. “I went from a time of reporting with simple handwriting on a piece of paper to today with computers and internet. Firefighting is a science (and) is still one of the only occupations that hasn’t been replaced by machinery and robots.”
Dillard stressed the brotherhood of firefighters, their willingness to help each other no matter where they are from or what they look like because, as he put it, “at the end of it, our skin is all ashen and black with soot.”
Even though he is retired, that doesn’t mean Dillard is planning to slow things down too much.
“Right now, I’m continuing my teaching,” he said. “I’ll probably, for the next few months, just take it easy, maybe do some traveling. But I actually retired to go back to work. I’d like to expand my teaching.
“I still have a heart for the city of Attalla, so I want to be able to help them in the future, help the fire department with different projects and anything the city needs,” he expounded. “Really just anything that comes across that needs me.”
For young firefighters and paramedics, Dillard had some parting wisdom to convey.
“Pay attention,” he said. “Your job when you first come to work is ‘wax on, wax off.’ Do as you’re told because those simple things will make you a better leader when it comes time for you to lead.”
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