Charleston's Tom Carr is FIRE CHIEF's 2010 career chief of the Year.
Inspiration sometimes is borne from tragedy. Decades ago, a small child was struck by a car while riding his bike. Another small child witnessed the event, and became fixated, even smitten.
"I was impressed by the rescue squad's response, the care that they provided to the child, and the crispness of their uniforms," said Tom Carr, chief of the Charleston (S.C.) Fire Department, who last month was named FIRE CHIEF's 2010 career chief of the year. "It is my first memory of being interested in the fire service. I was 7 years old."
In 1973, the 18-year-old Carr became a volunteer firefighter with the Montgomery County (Md.) Fire & Rescue Service, a combination department in suburban Washington, D.C., that protects about 500 square miles and 1 million inhabitants, and which fields roughly 100,000 emergency calls annually. Five years later, Carr became a career firefighter and eventually rose to chief in 2003.
Along the way, he proved to be an innovator, according to Mary Beth Michos, who worked alongside Carr for three decades at Montgomery County and who today is the deputy executive director of the. "For example, auto-extrication tactics focused on taking the car apart, but Tom believed that it was more important to care for the victim," Michos said. "He significantly changed how people looked at that."
Eventually, Carr — who was one of the first paramedics in the county and who served in that capacity for two decades — started presenting seminars on his approach to auto extrication, in order to get all of the departments in the region “on the same page.” He had noticed that firefighters would race to the car and not to the victim. “I decided that it was more important to stabilize the victim before taking the car apart,” he said. “I've always had a passion for rescue.”
At first, Carr encountered tremendous resistance to his theory. “I was suggesting an approach that was very different than how they were used to doing it,” he said. Undeterred, Carr went about the task of changing their minds. One of the tools he used was a bowling ball attached to the top of a broom stick. “The human head weighs about as much as a bowling ball and a broom stick is roughly the same dimension as the spinal column,” he said. “I was able to demonstrate the pressure that's put on the spine and why it's important to stabilize the neck as quickly as possible.”
Another area where Carr innovated while at Montgomery County concerned collapse rescues. He eventually formed a collapse-rescue team thatdesignated as one of the nation's first urban search-and-rescue teams.
“He's really a visionary,” Michos said.
Soon thereafter, Carr was dispatched on a search-and-rescue mission to Armenia, which at the time was a republic of the former Soviet Union. The region had suffered a devastating earthquake that measured 6.9 on the Richter scale, severely damaged several cities and killed more than 25,000 people. Carr and his teammates were stunned by what they found. “What we saw was a big mess,” he said.
As if the devastation wasn't enough, the region had no infrastructure in place for disaster management. The team also discovered, despite all of its training, that it wasn't adequately prepared for the level of carnage that it encountered.
“It was quite upsetting,” Carr recalled. “We were ill-prepared to help anybody.”
But help they did, spending days digging people out of the rubble. The toll of that activity took Carr and his fellow firefighters by surprise. Not only did they have to provide emotional relief to the survivors whose loved ones they were extricating from what was left of the crumbled buildings, they had to deal with their own emotions. They had little previous experience with either task.
“It was a real eye-opener,” Carr said.
A Leader Emerges
It has been said that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and Carr came back from the former Soviet Union richer for the experience. He also continued to innovate. After becoming chief, Carr established a health clinic for Montgomery County firefighters that is focused on job-specific medical issues. He also hired a psychologist to handle stress debriefings.
“He cares for people and is very committed to firefighter health and safety,” Michos said. “He was part of a new breed of chief.”
He also cares about what they think, a leadership trait that he long has exhibited, Michos added. “He always understood the importance of listening,” she said.
It's a notion that was seconded by John Tippett, who has worked side by side with Carr for about three decades, first at Montgomery County and today at Charleston, where he is the department's deputy chief of operations. He said that Carr has an unassuming personality that naturally draws others into the conversation.
“His listening skills are the key to his leadership,” Tippett said. “Chief Carr believes in open and honest communication. People are allowed to speak their mind as long as they're respectful. He leads you without you feeling that you're being led.”
That was a breath of fresh air for the Charleston department, according to Capt. Chris Villarreal, who said that the previous chief took a “my way or the highway” approach to leadership. Carr has proved to be the antithesis of that leadership style.
“When he arrived, he made it a point to get to know the firefighters and ask them what they think,” Villarreal said. “He made this our department, not his. That was a big step. It was a 180° turnaround from how things used to be.”
The sense of ownership that Carr gave firefighters and chief officers has paid dividends, according to Villarreal. “It's similar to what happens in a company. When employees actually help to build the company, it becomes a better company,” he said. “People are proud to be where they're at, and you have less disgruntled people.”
While many chiefs might hesitate to grant such ownership, for fear of losing control, Carr said that doing so actually solves more problems than it creates.
“It's amazing — when you give people ownership, chiefs don't have to tell people what to do. They just do it,” he said.
Carr added that it only makes sense to listen to firefighters and chief officers, because they're the ones on the street who are fighting the battles and dealing with the victims.
“That's what leadership is all about,” he said. “You have to let people know that what they say matters, and that you're going to act on it. If I don't know what's wrong, I can't fix it.”
Such an attitude is why Carr is regarded as a “firefighter's firefighter,” according to Michos.
“They would follow Tom anywhere,” she said. “They're very loyal to him.”
Carr believes that such loyalty begins with trust, which is a byproduct of effective two-way communication between firefighters and those who lead them. Carr also believes that trust is something that has to be worked on — and earned.
“I've spent a lot of time over the years going to fire stations,” he said. “And when I'm there, I make it a point to sit at the kitchen table, where they drink their coffee.”
The message is crystal clear: If you want to be perceived as a firefighter's firefighter, you first have to be perceived as being one of them.
A Very Big Challenge
Carr took the reins at Charleston two years ago. Four months later, he promoted from within and named Frank Finley a deputy chief. After another four months passed, Tippett left Montgomery County to join Carr and complete Charleston's new leadership triumvirate. The city's fire department first popped onto Carr's radar screen shortly after the Sofa Super Store fire in 2007 that claimed the lives of nine firefighters. He decided to reach out to the department — whose tactics in fighting the blaze were harshly criticized in a National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health report — by inviting its officers to Montgomery County to see how that department operated. “We invited them up to kick the tires,” Carr said.
Montgomery County recently had implemented a command-competency program that Carr believed had a “remarkable impact” on the department. Central to the program were laboratory simulations that enabled the department to evaluate its response tactics.
“It changed how we operate in the field,” Carr said.
Despite his belief that Montgomery County was operating how a department should operate, Carr was sensitive to the feelings of his Charleston brethren, who still were reeling from the loss of nine brothers.
“We made sure that they knew we weren't second-guessing them,” he said.
Just short of the one-year anniversary of the fire, Charleston's fire chief retired. Carr decided to apply for the job, for several reasons. First and foremost, he believed that he could have an impact on the department's operations. Second, he was born in Charleston and his elderly parents who had begun to require care lived in the city. Third, he and his wife always planned to retire in Charleston. And there was one final, practical reason for making the move. “I couldn't earn any more retirement credits at Montgomery County,” he said.
While well-aware of the criticism the Charleston department had received in the aftermath of the Sofa Super Store fire, Carr said that his initial thought regarding the job and the situation that the department was in was, how bad could it be? “Looking back on it, that was a funny question,” he said.
The answer to that question was, really bad.
Carr immediately concluded that the department needed a significant overhaul of its operating procedures and a marked improvement in its command competency. One of the biggest problems, according to Villarreal, was that chief officers often were difficult to find on the fireground.
“They'd run around and you'd have to physically look for them,” Villarreal said. “Now chiefs consistently are in one spot, and we know each and every time where to go at a fire to find them.”
Carr also knew going into the job that the emotional damage that had been inflicted upon the department was considerable and needed to be addressed. What he didn't anticipate was the emotional baggage that was being carried seemingly by the entire town. For Carr, it was Soviet Armenia all over again.
“I thought I was prepared, but I underestimated how big this issue was for the community,” he said. “There might be over a hundred thousand people living here, but this is still a small community, and the impact of this event on the community was huge. There's no text book for that. It's been a very difficult task.”
There's also no text book for having to hire virtually an entire fire department, which was another very difficult task that Carr didn't anticipate but has had to face. More than 80 firefighters who were in the employ of the department when the Sofa Super Store fire occurred have left the department, for a variety of reasons. Consequently, the department had to hire and train an army of new recruits. It so far has hired 150 new firefighters, in order to bring the department into compliance with NFPA 1710, and expects to hire another class. The department hired an outside training chief to help with the process.
At the same time, Carr — with Tippett and Finley at his side — had to figure out a way to keep the department functional. “We still needed to answer 911 calls,” Carr said. “No one gets a bye in the fire service.”
Tippett had no doubt that Carr would be up to the task. “He's thinking about Thursday when everyone else still is rubbing the sleep out of their eyes on Monday morning.”
Nor did Mayor Joseph P. Riley, who hired Carr for the post. “I knew he would be a great chief, but he has exceeded my expectations,” Riley said at a dinner last month honoring Carr during the Fire-Rescue International conference in Chicago. “He has led us out of a tragic fire to new heights of achievement.”
But as if the challenges presented by Charleston weren't enough to test Carr's mettle, he not long ago was forced to take on perhaps the greatest challenge of his life. Carr was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, an insidious malady that eventually robs its victims of their motor skills. Carr believes that he contracted the disease as a direct result of his work as a firefighter. “I don't have the genetic markers for the disease,” he said. “So it has to be job-related.” He spoke of the times that he and his colleagues routinely would remove their breathing masks when overhauling the scene of a blaze.
Since being diagnosed, Carr has discovered that four of his fellow firefighters at Montgomery County have contracted Parkinson's, and has received e-mails from “all over the country” from firefighters who are similarly afflicted. Typically, he's already thinking several squares down the game board, calling for a study of the long-term effects on firefighters from the byproducts of combustion.
“We have to do something about that and all of the occupational maladies that affect the fire service,” he said.
Though his disease already has taken a toll on Carr, he has no intention of quitting — there's simply too much still to do for the Charleston Fire Department and the tightly knit community it serves. And he has no regrets about taking on the challenges of Charleston at this point in his life, even with the added burden of Parkinson's disease.
“This is the most challenging job I've ever had — and I love it.”