Former Charleston Fire Chief Thomas Carr remembered for innovative work

Charleston Fire Chief Thomas Carr, Jr. waits to be sworn in by Mayor Joe Riley Friday, November 7, 2008. Buy this photo

Friends and colleagues Thursday lauded former Charleston Fire Chief Thomas Carr as an innovative, visionary leader who helped transform a struggling and wounded department into a modern firefighting force.

Carr, who led the Charleston Fire Department from November 2008 until his March 2012 retirement, died Wednesday evening after a lengthy battle with an aggressive form of Parkinson’s Disease. He was 59.

While fighting a debilitating illness, Carr 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.

“He did so much for this community,” Riley said Thursday. “He also gave us an unforgettable lesson in personal courage. … Every time I saw him, I knew he was in great pain, but he never complained. ... You enjoyed his company because he had a twinkle in his eye.”

Carr died at his home Wednesday evening, surrounded by family and friends. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Monday in St. Michael’s Church in Charleston.

Carr came to the city from Montgomery County, Md., where he led a fire and rescue service roughly 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, established a nationally recognized search and rescue program, achieved national accreditation for his fire department and fought to improve firefighter safety.

Fire Chief magazine Editorial Director Janet Wilmoth said Carr had a quiet, but effective, style that earned him admiration throughout the fire service.

“He was an amazing man who was well-respected and an inspiration to a lot of people in our industry,” she said.

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.

Billy Goldfeder, a deputy chief in Ohio and a columnist for Firehouse magazine, said he wasn’t sure who could take on the job of leading the struggling department. But in Carr, Charleston found “the absolute perfect choice,” he said.

“Tommy was EXACTLY what the community and the CFD needed,” Goldfeder said in an email. “The perfect balance of understanding, drive, focus, kindness, heart and expertise.”

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 always was 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 he 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 praised 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 taken a turn for the worse, and that he would retire in March 2012.

Gerald Mishoe, head of the Charleston Firefighter Support Team, said he and others continued to visit Carr after he left to seek his counsel and advice. Mishoe last saw him about 10 days before his death. Though frail and confined to a wheelchair, Carr was always willing to listen and offer what help he could, he said.

“He fought (the disease) very bravely and he never complained,” Mishoe said. “He led by his spirit and by example, and he continued to do so right up until the end.”

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