The Gadsden Times, Ala.
Jan. 26—As the days count down to his retirement, Stephen Carroll doesn’t seem to be running toward the door, as retirees often do.
After more than 21 years as Gadsden’s fire chief, and a total of 43 years in fire service, Carroll said he’ll miss the job he’s loved and the things it’s allowed him to do.
“It’s all about what you’re able to give back to people,” he said.
Carroll took over as chief in 1999, coming to Gadsden from the Birmingham Fire Department, where he had the opportunity to fill many roles and gain experience he brought with him to Gadsden.
He served there as a lieutenant, a captain and deputy safety officer — “one of the first in the state,” he said — and captain of the hazardous materials team.
“I’ll always be appreciative to Birmingham Fire,” Carroll said. “All those opportunities helped me be a better chief.”
Looking at the Gadsden Fire Department, from then to now, Carroll believes it’s a better department as a result of changes in policies, improvements in training and equipment, and especially because of the people in the department.
From the office staff to the firefighters in the field, the chief said, “We’ve got excellent people. We always have had.”
However, Carroll recalled that when he arrived in 1999, the department had let some critical programs lapse, such as hydrant inspections, daily training and pump inspections. Because of the closing of Gulf States Steel and layoffs at Goodyear, the mayor and council started using fire tax funds for all department expenses except salaries, rather than reserving it for equipment purchases. That depleted the fund so that apparatus had to be leased and capital expenditures were limited, according to the chief.
New policies and standard operating procedures were put into place, he said, including a progressive new discipline policy; a training policy; hydrant, pump and hose testing policies; a fitness policy; and SOPs for hazmat, patient treatment, alarm dispatch and other areas of operation.
At the time, Carroll said, the department had one hazardous materials vehicle, but no one was trained in dealing with hazardous material. A new hazmat program was developed, equipped through an Emergency Management Agency grant. Thirty-two firefighters received hazmat training, he said, and later all personnel at Station 4 were trained.
Additional vehicles equipped for hazmat response were added, along with other equipment over the years: three Wheel Coach Rescue units, four staff vehicles and a Quality 75 Quint in 2000; three E-One engines in 2003; two E-One engines in 2005; and a new E-One 75-foot Quint in 2006.
Two Wheel Coach Rescue units were remounted with 5500 GMC engines in 2008, Carroll said, and work has continued to maintain and update all equipment, and to renovate fire stations.
Plans are in place for a new fire station at Banks Park, Carroll said. It will change the location of Station 7 by about a mile and place it closer to Interstate 759, splitting the distance between Gadsden City High School and Walnut Park Elementary School.
At the time Carroll became chief, the city’s ISO rating — a factor in insurance costs for property owners — was Class 4, and the city had an inspection was slated for that year. Had it happened, he said, the rating was likely to have gotten worse. He was able to stave off inspection while work was underway to improve equipment, training and policies.
ISO ratings range from 1 to 10, Carroll said, the lower the number the better. Gadsden’s rating in 2016 was Class 2, and the chief said it was about 2 points from being Class 1.
Station 2 and station 3 had been closed, Carroll said, but Station 2 has since reopened at the airport with a modernized training facility there, with room — and need — for expansion.
Carroll said the department has used grants to update programming and equipment. In 2003 a FEMA grant allowed construction of a fitness center; in 2005, a grant of 5,000 smoke detectors made it possible for the city to install the devices in neighborhoods within the city.
Other improvements included a boathouse built at Coosa Landing for a fire department boat to use in water rescue or other efforts. Carroll said it saves the department having to drag a boat to the dock to launch — improving response time in an emergency.
Throughout 21 and a half years as chief, Carroll said hiring and holding on to personnel has been a consistent challenge. Initially, he said, people left as they retired. Later, it became a case of people leaving for other job opportunities.
The department has worked to recruit people locally; the chief said it helps to keep people in the area if their families and their roots are here.
He said the department worked in 2017 to develop a training program at Gadsden City High School, allowing students interested in fire service to train with the department while in school, and to seek employment upon graduation.
It’s been stymied by COVID-19, he said, with schools being in and out of on-campus classes since March, but he’s optimistic it will continue and benefit the department in the future.
COVID-19 has been a complicating factor for almost a year now, requiring new protocols to reduce the level of exposure for firefighters and other employees. Through federal CARES Act funding, Carroll said the department has been able to acquire LifePaks, Lucas devices, other medical equipment and additional personal protective equipment.
One accomplishment Carroll is proud of as chief has nothing to do with helmets and hoses and putting out fires. More than 15 years ago, the Gadsden Police Department was looking to turn an annual toy drive for disadvantaged children over to another agency.
Carroll said he felt the need to give back to the community, and the Gadsden Fire Department took over the Toys from Santa drive. Gadsden’s firefighters have worked hard to meet this community need every year since.
“It help (the children) and it helps our personnel,” Carroll said, “to be able to serve the community in a way that’s not an emergency call — to give back to the community.”
Carroll said it’s old hat to say you became a firefighter to help people, but it truly is the motivation for most who enter the profession. He said that during his time as chief, the department’s efforts have been toward that shared goal.
The chief said he’s been fortunate to have good people through the years to share that goal. He said he always had good assistant chiefs “who keep things going the way they should be.”
Carroll said he appreciated the support the department has enjoyed from City Hall. “We can’t do anything without money,” he said.
“We do a lot of things different,” he said of the department, compared to when he started out as chief. “It’s all designed to make the city safer, and to better serve the citizens.
Contact Gadsden Times reporter Donna Thornton at 256-393-3284 or email@example.com.
(c)2021 The Gadsden Times, Ala.
Visit The Gadsden Times, Ala. at www.gadsdentimes.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.