Fire chief has Parkinson's

Charleston Fire Chief Thomas Carr


Charleston Fire Chief Thomas Carr knew he had Parkinson's disease when he took the job in November 2008, but he felt it wouldn't stop him from helping a fire department struggling to rebuild after it lost nine of its own.

Carr, 56, revealed his battle with the degenerative disease on Tuesday, deciding it was finally time to let his firefighters and the public know about his condition. He didn't say anything sooner because he didn't want his medical problems to distract from the progress the Fire Department was making, he said.

"I didn't want it to interfere with the all the good we were doing," he said.

Carr said he still feels healthy and has no plans to step down. The disease has affected his balance and created a slight shaking in his voice but it has had no effect on his mental acuity, he said. Carr said his doctors assured him he was capable of taking the Charleston chief's job and he expects to continue working for quite a while.

"I get up every morning ready to go," he said. "There is a mission out there left to be accomplished, and I want to accomplish it. I would be very disappointed if I walked away and left the city and the mayor holding the bag."

Mayor Joe Riley, who was first informed of Carr's condition on St. Patrick's Day, said the chief has his full support and he expects Carr to continue in his post "for a substantial period of time." Riley lauded the "tremendous progress" the Fire Department has made under Carr and said he is "completely confident" in the chief's abilities to lead the 308 firefighters under his command.

Riley said he would have still hired Carr had he known about the disease beforehand. Carr, former chief of Montgomery County (Md.) Fire and Rescue Service, was selected from a field of 141 candidates from across the nation.

"He was by far the most outstanding and by far the most perfect for the job," Riley said.

City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee, said the Fire Department was in upheaval when Carr arrived and desperately needed someone of his caliber and experience.

Carr left a fire department 10 times the size of Charleston's to take the reins of an organization still grieving and rebuilding from the Sofa Super Store blaze that killed nine city firefighters in June 2007. He liked the challenge and the chance to make a difference.

Carr is widely credited with adopting modern techniques and standards, as well as charting a more coordinated, regional approach to firefighting. 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.

They improved training, equipment and tactics under his watch, and the department recently began an officer- candidates school to boost leadership skills and accountability.

"This is really powerful stuff," Carr said. "And there is so much work left to do."

Carr informed his command staff of his condition Tuesday morning and then broke the news to the rest of the department. At one stop, he received a standing ovation.

"We are going to stand behind him," said Bill Haigler, president of the Charleston firefighters union. "He has brought us a tremendous way in the past 17 months, and we have faith he is going to continue to lead us -- even with this degenerative disease -- into the future."

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.

Carr said he thinks he began experiencing early symptoms about five years ago but was initially misdiagnosed. He was finally diagnosed with the disease two years ago.

Riley said he has spoken with Carr's doctor at the Mayo Clinic in New York and will receive updates on any changes in his condition. Carr added that he won't hesitate to step aside if he feels he is unable to do the job.

"It's a tragic disease," Carr said. "But it's a disease many people continue to work with for a long time after learning they have it."