Terre Haute (IN) Fire Chief Ready to Close Out Career

Lisa Trigg

The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind.

(MCT)

Apr. 12—Today will be the final day on the job for Jeff Fisher, chief of the Terre Haute Fire Department for the past 13 years.

“It’s been a good ride. I’ve enjoyed it,” Fisher said of his 31 1/2 -year career that began Oct. 12, 1989.

“I’ve had a lot of great partners,” Fisher said of his co-workers through the years.

His first assignment was on an ambulance crew at Station 2. He later was assigned to Station 7, then Station 8 and eventually was assigned as public information officer under Chief Jay Utz and Mayor Kevin Burke.

Fisher said he had no aspiration to be fire chief when he started his career, but he has enjoyed his years in the chief’s office.

“I really enjoyed being the PIO,” he said. The opportunity to become chief took him by surprise.

Then newly-elected Mayor Duke Bennett asked PIO Fisher for names of people who would be interested in being chief, so Fisher offered some names. Then Fisher’s son Bill suggested that Jeff also apply.

“I said naw, I’m happy where I’m at,” Fisher recalled of his first consideration of the chief’s job.

But after a couple days, Fisher did apply and interview with Bennett. Fisher learned he had the job on Feb. 11, 2009.

Bennett said he chose Fisher for the job because he was impressed with Fisher’s ability to make good decisions and stay calm under pressure.

“I just thought he was the best choice to do the job that at the time, and it has worked out well,” Bennett said. “He has been a huge asset to our overall city team.”

Fisher started the job focused on updating training and getting a plan together to update equipment. He was successful on both points, Bennett said, and that has been important for the city leadership team.

Fisher has been in charge of the largest department in the city.

“It was an eye-opening experience at first,” Fisher said of being chief. “You come in and try to do the right thing, and please everybody, and try not to go crazy at the same time. And you can’t do two out of three,” he said.

It took him a couple of years trying to get over pleasing everybody, Fisher said, chuckling.

Eight-five percent of the fire department’s runs are EMS-based, with about 150 fires averaged annually in recent years.

Manpower in the department has stayed steady through his years, Fisher said, with the current count around 143 firefighters. Some new hires are in process to fill about 10 current vacancies, but more openings are expected with four retirements expected this year.

Last year, 11 people retired from THFD. Fisher said he looks for several of the long-term firefighters to prepare to leave in the next couple of years.

One project currently in the works is a new fire station in the pre-design stage in the area of Indiana 46 0on Terre Haute’s east side. Funding is being lined up, and a fire house design committee is ready to begin their task.

The growth of the Indiana 46 corridor with a planned casino, ongoing residential and commercial development, and the possibility of an F35 foreign military sales training facility coming to Terre Haute Regional Airport all mean a new station in that area is needed, he said.

Meanwhile, a three-year project that will be wrapped up this week at Station 5 is a Baby Box, where infants can be safely and anonymously abandoned.

Fisher said the baby box has been installed, but has been awaiting an alarm to notify dispatchers when an infant has been left in the box.

Looking back over his 30-plus year career, Fisher said he has many memories, including high points and low points.

The relationship among public safety agencies in the area has improved, Fisher said.

“We have a great relationship with the sheriff’s department and the city police,” he said. “The volunteer fire departments in the area, I’m happy to say I’m friends with all the chiefs, and we have great volunteer departments in our area.”

Another positive memory was when he assisted with the delivery of a baby. And there was a young boy who made a full recovery after being hit by a car in Collett Park.

He also met politicians Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and Survivor reality TV star Rupert Boneham.

The ongoing development of the training center in the late 2000s has been a bonus, with regular utilization of that facility by area fire departments and other agencies, including international groups.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve built up out there,” he said.

The Protect the Precious initiative to supply smoke detectors to all city residences started about 10 years ago following a triple fatality fire. It has been a positive program, and includes educating local school children about fire safety and the importance of working smoke detectors in living spaces.

His fire department years have not been without low points as well.

“Things you wish you could have done different to help somebody, but things were out of your control at the time,” Fisher said.

The COVID-19 death of firefighter John Schoftstall was a definite low point, as was the arson-related death of firefighter Ralph Stott in September 2002.

On a personal note, he has been a positive representative for city leadership by participating in the annual 100 Men Who Cook event, and will participate in the upcoming Meals on Wheels Jail for Bail fundraiser.

As he looks ahead to his free time, Fisher said he plans to work on his golf game and go camping. He has a two-week camping trip planned through the western states, and he is looking forward to the arrival of a first grandchild in May.

Anticipating his retirement, last year Fisher decided to run for local office and campaigned for a Vigo County Commissioner seat. He lost in the November election, but that has not caused him to rule out considering future runs at public office.

As for his replacement at THFD, Fisher said he is waiting on Mayor Bennett to announce a new chief to take over Tuesday morning. And Fisher wishes that person the best.

“You know when it’s time to step down and I feel that it’s time for me to pass the baton on to someone else,” he said. “They’ll take what we’ve built and add their touch to it.”

Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or at lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter at TribStarLisa.

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