Former Charleston Fire Chief Thomas Carr, who helped transform a struggling and wounded department into a modern firefighting force, has died after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Carr served as Charleston’s fire chief from November 2008 until his retirement due to declining health on March 2, 2012 at age 57. In that time, while fighting a debilitating illness, he shepherded a period of sweeping change in a 319-person fire department still healing from a June 2007 inferno that killed nine firemen.
Mayor Joe Riley and others called Carr a courageous, inspiring leader who stayed focused on his duties and kept at his work without complaint despite the ravages of a chronic illness.
“Chief Thomas Carr was a great man who left a profound legacy,” Riley said Wednesday night. “His implementation of automatic aid in our region was transformative. He was an innovator in the fire service and made a great impact in our region.”
Battalion Chief Mike Julazadeh said Carr passed away at his home Wednesday evening, surrounded by family and friends. Funeral service information and plans will be announced at a later date, he said.
Carr came to the city from Montgomery County, Md., where he led a fire and rescue service roughly the 10 times the size of Charleston’s. During his 30-year career there, he earned a reputation as a strong, capable leader who, among other things, had established a nationally recognized search and rescue program, achieved national accreditation for his fire department and fought to improve firefighter safety.
Carr was chosen for the Charleston job after a national search that attracted 141 applicants. Many officials said he was the obvious choice from the outset. But for Carr, it wasn’t a job he ever expected to have.
Carr was born at the Charleston Naval Hospital in 1954 and had always planned to return to the city someday. But he assumed he would be in his golden retirement years by then, spending his days in a rocking chair and dozing off while staring at the glittering ocean waters.
His plans changed after watching the Charleston Fire Department’s struggles in the wake of the Sofa Super Store fire that killed nine of its firefighters on June 18, 2007. Many firefighters were in counseling. The city was spending millions to upgrade equipment and training to correct deep-rooted problems identified in the blaze. Morale was in tatters.
Carr knew it wouldn’t be easy to turn things around, but he liked the challenge and the chance to make a difference.
Carr traveled to station houses to meet face-to-face with front-line firefighters. He opened lines of communication with the local firefighters union and involved everyone from assistant chiefs to the rank-and-file in drafting a new playbook for the fire department. He adopted modern techniques and standards and worked with other area departments to create a more coordinated, regional approach to firefighting.
Carr’s office often resembled a war room, his walls covered with large sheets of paper scrawled with ideas, plans, strategies. He was always looking down the road to the next task at hand. But for Carr, time to accomplish those plans was beginning to run short.
In April 2010, Carr revealed that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. He pledged to stay on the job as long as he could.
Four months later, he was named Career Fire Chief of the Year by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, which lauded his vision and achievements. Carr, typically, said his firefighters, the community and city leadership were just as deserving of credit.
“It’s a team, it’s a community that made this thing work,” Carr said at the time. “You can have new equipment, all the stuff in the world, but without these folks you’ve got nothing.”
Carr’s mind remained sharp as his physical decline continued and his body grew weak. He could recite chapter and verse of obscure fire codes and standards at will but he needed help just to get to his office each day.
In September 2011, Carr announced that his disease had a taken a turn for the worse and that he would retire in March 2012. He held on and kept working until complications left him hospitalized just days before he was to step down.