• Comment

Fire chief to retire at beginning of new year

Posted: November 26, 2016 - 11:02pm
Columbia County Fire Chief Paul D. Cooper is planning to retire Jan. 1 after 41 years of service in Columbia County.   ABBIGAIL LENNON/STAFF
ABBIGAIL LENNON/STAFF
Columbia County Fire Chief Paul D. Cooper is planning to retire Jan. 1 after 41 years of service in Columbia County.

Columbia County's first fire chief, Paul D. Cooper, is planning to retire at the beginning of the new year, and will leave behind a career that saw growth from a four-station county to some 15 units, with more than 150 positions.

Cooper began his lifetime career in 1972 as a volunteer, with a first day of duty story that still makes him chuckle when he tells it.

As an Evans High School graduate, Cooper went to the sole fire station situated in Martinez-Evans, for his first Saturday volunteer shift, and recalls "things were a lot different than they are now."

"The Saturday shift for volunteers was from 12-6, but you never got relieved at 6. So I go strolling down there for my first day of duty and the paid guy said ‘Are you here for duty?' And I said ‘yep,' and so he left," Cooper said. "Nobody ever showed me how to pump water out of the truck."

Cooper recalled that first day when a call came in for a fire reported near Knob Hill.

"So I spent the day there, most of the day by myself and around 6 p.m., the team chief came in to start to cook and two or three other people came by and the fire phone rang. And so the team chief told me to take the truck and go up there and I was like, ‘Look, I don't even know how to get water out of this truck here, nobody showed me.'"

But Cooper said the team chief reassured him someone would meet him up there to show him how to use it.

As he departed from the station in the fire truck for the first time, without any training, Cooper said he was unaware of the 500 gallons of water the truck was equipped with.

As he made his way toward the call, Cooper said he was following a little too closely behind another car. When the car suddenly slammed on brakes, so did Cooper, sending all 500 gallons of water lurching forward, pushing the truck with it, he explained.

"The car puts on the brakes hard to turn into Knob Hill and I put on the brakes and the truck just got to going faster it seemed like," Cooper said. "And the car couldn't turn because he was meeting another car, but I did manage to go around him on the edge of the road. And we did got there and luckily it was just a woods fire. So that was a pretty exciting first day."

But Cooper soon climbed the ranks in leadership, growing with the fire and rescue department as the county grew.

In 1998, Cooper became fire chief for the then Martinez-Evans fire department.

After that promotion, soon came the consolidation of the fire departments into a sole Columbia County entity, while Harlem and Grovetown's fire departments remained.

Cooper said before the department was contracted by the county, which was paid for by a fire tax, they were on a subscription-based service. In 2012, the price tag the department would have to pay for workman's compensation doubled from $300,000 to $1 million, giving the department no choice but to consolidate.

"There was no way that we could pay that much money for workman's comp so I called up our county administrator Mr. Johnson and I explained the situation to him and told him I think it might be time," Cooper said. "And the county bent over backwards for us, I can't say enough about the county. They kept everybody."

But Cooper did say the consolidation plans caused some upset, though it worked out well in the end.

"When you have to tell all these people that they are going to go work for the county, people don't like change," Cooper said. ‘They were all nervous and I kept trying to assure them that we were going to be alright, but that was probably the biggest hurdle."

As a testament to his many years of service, Cooper said the Columbia County Fire and Rescue department recently received the highest available Insurance Services Organization rating of 1, putting the department on pace with the top one percent of fire departments in the United States.

"So that's something that we are really proud of. I didn't do it on my own," Cooper said, adding that over his career the ISO rating for the fire and rescue department has gone from a nine to a four and now to a one.

Another point of pride for Cooper is the training of his staff to respond medically as first responders as well as firefighting.

Cooper said he plans to do some fishing when he retires, but was adamant that he would always be around. Because for Cooper, firefighting is a lifelong passion.

"When you're a firefighter, and it's not for everybody, when you go inside a burning structure and that fire is coming over your back, that stuff's beautiful," Cooper said. "Then when you are looking to find somebody, and get them out of a burning building, there's a lot of satisfaction in doing things like that as well."

Cooper said interviews are currently underway to determine his replacement, though no announcement has yet been made.

 

  • Comment