Charleston to launch hunt for new fire chief

Thomas Carr

The city of Charleston plans to launch a nationwide search to find a successor to retiring Fire Chief Thomas Carr, who transformed a struggling department into a modern firefighting force.

Carr announced on Wednesday that he will step down March 1 because of the effects of an aggressive, debilitating illness.

A short time later, Mayor Joe Riley placed a call to the same consulting firm that helped bring the chief to Charleston three years ago. Riley said he hopes to secure the firm's help in finding a top-notch candidate to succeed Carr, who revealed last year that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

Riley and others called Carr a courageous, inspiring leader who has kept at his work without complaint despite the ravages of a chronic illness.

"He is a very fine, honorable, hard-working person who has led the department to enormous achievements," Riley said. "We will miss him very much."

Carr, 57, briefed city firefighters on his decision during a morning assembly at the Charleston Maritime Center. He then released a statement explaining that his medical problems had taken a turn for the worse.

Carr said his neurologist recently found that he has a more serious condition known as multiple systems atrophy, which is among the more severe syndromes of Parkinson's. The condition progresses more rapidly and doesn't respond well to medication, he said.

Carr became fire chief in November 2008, taking the reins of a department still grieving and rebuilding from the Sofa Super Store blaze that killed nine city firefighters the year before. He is widely credited with adopting modern techniques and standards, as well as charting a more coordinated, regional approach to firefighting. He has 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 was awarded Career Fire Chief of the Year by the International Association of Fire Chiefs last summer.

Fire Chief magazine Editorial Director Janet Wilmoth, who was there when Carr received the award, described him Wednesday as a visionary in the fire service.

Riley echoed those sentiments in a letter to City Council announcing Carr's pending departure.

"When Chief Carr was hired he committed to serve 5 years. It is with deep regret for him and enormous regret for me that Chief Carr will not be able to complete that term of service to our citizens," Riley wrote.

In a July interview with The Post and Courier, Carr said he felt at the peak of his game mentally, brimming with new ideas and planned improvements for the fire department. But he also acknowledged that the disease was taking its toll. He said some days he struggled to get up the physical energy to get out of bed in the morning. He praised his crews for the support they had given him.

His physical decline has been plain to see. He has trouble getting around, his complexion is pale and his voice is thin. But he can still recite chapter and verse of obscure fire codes and standards at will. And his walls still teem with charts and to-do lists for the department.

But neurological diseases can be difficult to diagnose and treat, as Carr pointed out in his written statement.

"My initial diagnosis was tennis elbow and it wasn't until later that I was diagnosed with slow-developing Parkinson's," he wrote. "Unfortunately, my doctor now believes I have one of the more severe syndromes of Parkinsonism."

City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, credited Carr with bringing about a dramatic transformation to the city's fire department and with knowing when to step aside.

"I think he's doing the right thing once again for the overall welfare of the department," she said. "He knows that if he can't be 100 percent effective, it's time to bow out and allow the department to function fully."

Riley said the city will look around the country and within the fire department for a possible successor to Carr, following the same model it employed in his selection. As before, City Council members will have an opportunity to meet and interview the finalists before a new chief is selected, he said.

The Charleston firefighters union released a statement Wednesday saying that its members are "willing and eager" to assist the city in its search. The statement also lauded Carr for his leadership.

"It is with the utmost respect that Charleston firefighters would like to say that we are all extremely grateful for the opportunity to have served under the extraordinary leadership of Chief Thomas Carr," the statement read. "We sympathize with the Carr family in their time of need and are more than willing to assist them in any way we can.

Parkinson's disease is one of a larger group of neurological conditions called motor-system disorders. Historians have found evidence of the disease as far back as 5000 B.C. It was first described as "the shaking palsy" in 1817 by British doctor James Parkinson. Because of Parkinson's early work in identifying symptoms, the disease came to bear his name.

About 1 million Americans are living with the disease. There is no cure. Medications can relieve symptoms but don't slow the disease.

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or on Twitter at @glennsmith5. Reach Andy Paras at 937-5589, on Twitter at @AndyParas or on Facebook.