DFRD chief Tommy Tate to retire Thursday

Demopolis Fire Department Chief Tommy Tate (right) receives a certificate of appreciation from Canal Heights church of Christ preacher Mike Swims during a dinner the congregation held for the department and EMT units over the weekend.

Demopolis Fire Department Chief Tommy Tate (right) receives a certificate of appreciation from Canal Heights church of Christ preacher Mike Swims during a dinner the congregation held for the department and EMT units over the weekend.

After more than 25 years with the Demopolis Fire and Rescue Department, DFRD Chief Tommy Tate will retire Thursday.

“I’ll probably miss the relationships with all the men I work with. When you work with them for 24 hours or 48 hours, you kind of get to know them. You know their strengths. You know their weaknesses. You know when they’re struggling at home. You know when they’re having a bad day,” Tate said. “When you put your life on the line sometimes with these guys in stressful situations, they really become your close friends because you can confide in each other with different things that are going on.”

Tate was working hospital maintenance before beginning his tenure with the department in January 1990 under Chief Aubrey Randall. His career spanned the eras of Mike Fuqua, George Davenport and Ronnie Few before he took over as chief in October 2012.

“I never thought I would be chief. But whenever I make up my mind on something, I give it 110 percent,” Tate said. “It’s a bigger responsibility. You always think ‘When I get to the top, I’m going to change things. I’m going to make that decision.’ Well, before you make that decision, you need to look at how many people it is going to effect and what you’re going to have to do to do that.”

Tate said one of the great focal points of the department during his time as chief has been disaster preparedness as DFRD has looked to become better equipped to aide in potential catastrophic situations.

“I know we’re a smaller department, but one of the things we’ve looked at is how to bring in other departments if something big were to happen. We’ve looked at that through disaster planning with the Department of Public Health and also through this HAZMAT regional response team, working along with DPS aviation on the river rescue stuff,” Tate said.

As he readies to walk away from the place that has been his part-time home for the last two and a half decades, Tate still remembers the first fire to which he responded.

“At first I wasn’t sure. The very first fire I went to was on Front Street. The way it was then was you were on straight days. He was molding you before you went to rookie school, so you’d be on straight days with the chief and training everyday. The first fire I went to was in the middle of a thunderstorm. I was just amazed,” Tate said. “I thought, ‘Well that fire should go out.’ It was pouring down rain, pouring down rain. Lightning had struck a power line and it came down on the house and the house was burning. I was just amazed. The shingles were keeping the rain off the fire.”

Emblazoned on his consciousness are a bevy of incidents ranging from medical calls to major fires that have resulted both in triumph and tragedy.

“I’ve had a lot of good days here and I’ve had some bad days, things you won’t forget. I think of some of the bigger fires and some of the bigger incidents,” Tate said, noting an incident in which he and Cliff Mangum were able to save the life of Lillian Ward. “I’ve also been where we’ve had drownings and we were unable to revive them.”

There was the massive, smoke-induced pileup on Highway 80 that resulted in loss of life. There was the loss of beloved Demopolis High student Cody Webb in car accident. There was a truck running some 30 feet off an embankment into a railroad culvert. Each incident continues to own a space within Tate’s reflections.

“I think of some of the big fires, the substation fire where we fought it all night and were able to contain it to that area and get the fire out. We also had an arson fire where a guy was going around setting small fires and then he graduated up to the school and we finally caught him. That was in the middle 90s. Traeger’s Bakery, I was on the first entry team inside that one. I remember that one very well. Hickory Mill was big. That was a firefight for eight or 10 hours. You kind of remember those big ones,” Tate said. “You try to learn something from every one of them.”

Still just 48 years old, Tate indicated he is excited about the new opportunities that accompany his retirement. He will go back to work in the private sector, but will also enjoy some much-needed family time.

“Spending time with my family a little bit more. Being here 25 years, you’re here 24 hours and sometimes 48 hours and it puts a little more pressure on mom. All this wouldn’t be possible without a great wife and Sylvia has been great,” Tate said. “I have a 20 year old and a 16 year old and (I’m looking forward to) spending a little bit more time with them.”