This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
Fire Chief Terry Smith got the call to fire services fairly early in his life. The call came in the form of screams for help from a woman whose grandson was stuck inside her burning house. Smith, a high school sophomore student at the time, was on a school bus that had stopped at the railroad tracks when they heard the woman’s cries for help.
Smith and another student jumped off the bus and rescued the young man from inside the burning home. They brought the injured boy back to the bus and the driver “turned the bus around and took him to the hospital,” said Smith. That event sparked his interest in becoming a fire fighter.
Shortly after that, while working at Wendy’s, a volunteer fire chief came through the drive-thru. Smith asked him how he could get involved. “Go down to
the station and talk to the chief,” he was told. He did and became a volunteer firefighter. After graduating from the fire academy, he was hired by Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, first as a dispatcher and then as a firefighter.
Now, he’s gotten another calling: to lead not just the Kingsland Fire Department as he’s been doing since 2014, but to also be the chief of Camden County Fire and Rescue. Smith has been serving as interim chief for the county since February, and the arrangement became permanent last month.
The mandate from city and county leaders for the past several years has been clear, Smith said. “We want functional collaboration.” Smith said that’s what he and the other fire fighters are delivering. They’ve closed one county station and moved the personnel into a city station alongside the city fire fighters. “When there is a call, the closest unit responds,” he said. “We have dropped those boundaries. We have the same mission and we’re all working together.”
The move puts Smith over the 99 county officers and Kingsland’s 20 full-time officers. Smith said taking on the extra responsibility for the county fire and rescue department hasn’t been a burden. “Those guys do a really good job,” he said. “They’ve got excellent officers.”
Like many fire chiefs, Smith said recruitment can be a challenge. “We’re always trying to recruit locally,” said Smith. But with the naval base and Jacksonville, Fla., so close, overcoming pay differentials can be difficult.
“You want to be competitive,” said Smith. “But at the end of the day, it’s not about the money. It’s about the leadership and creating an environment where people want to come to work and to stay.”
Like the fire chief who heard the calling in high school and has served his hometown ever since without regret. “My first fatality, I questioned [my choice of career],” Smith said. “But I’ve never regretted it. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”