By Tia Lynn Ivey, Managing Editor
As three veteran firefighters retire this year, with a combined 94-years experience between them, the Madison Volunteer Fire Department is entering into a new era of leadership.
Madison Fire Chief Tim Carter, Frank Nesbitt, and Ray Gilbert are hanging up their helmets and hoses, retiring after more than 30 years of service each. The trio leaves behind big boots to fill but three young men are set to slip into them and carry on the legacy on into the future. Brooks Pennington IV, a volunteer firefighter at the department for over 10 years, has been named the new chief at just 30 years old. Daniel Pennington is the new assistant chief, and Jonathon White will serve as the department’s new captain.
“These men have been so selfless in their service and leadership for so many years and that’s exactly what we want to continue doing,” said Brooks Pennington, who begins his tenure as chief on Jan. 1. “They taught us to be proactive, to be doers, and to lead by example.”
Pennington plans to carry on the legacy of all three retiring firefighters and to continue to heed from their examples. Gene Porter, Madison’s fire marshal, will also serve as a captain in the fire department. Pennington plans to glean from Porter’s long time service as well. While Pennington joined the fire department on a whim over a decade ago when his cousin Daniel Pennington decided to join, he said the department has become family to him. And saying goodbye to Carter, Nesbitt, and Gilbert is a bittersweet farewell for the entire department.
Carter believes the fire department is in good hands, as the young men he trained step up to lead. Carter, Nesbitt and Gilbert reflected on their decades of service and what lies in store for them next.
“Sleeping through the night, that’s the first thing,” joked Carter. Forfeiting a good night’s sleep is one of the many sacrifices these men have made over the last 30-plus years, along with interrupted holidays, birthdays, family gatherings, school plays and sporting events. All of that on top of running into burning buildings and risking their own lives to save others.
“Frankly, I don’t know how we are still alive to tell you the truth,” said Nesbitt. “With all the walls falling in on us or falling through floors are all the other things that go wrong during a fire, it’s amazing nothing more serious has happened to us.”
“I have had some close calls over the years,” said Gilbert. “Once during a fire at a local hotel, a huge HVAC unit came through the ceiling right above me and the cord attached to it got caught on something and stopped it right above my shoulder from falling on top of me.”
Carter recalls having a flashlight melt in his hand from the intense heat of the fire that engulfed the historic Foster-Thomason Miller House.
“I will never forget the flames shooting up the spiral staircase of that house, like fingers grabbing on to it all the up,” said Carter.
Both Carter and Nesbitt became fire fighters to follow in their families footsteps. Carter’s grandfather, Ernest Carter, was a firefighter for 36 years and Nesbitt’s father, Bob Nesbitt was a fire fighter for over 40 years.
“It’s our heritage,” said Carter.
Gilbert joined in 1990 after reading a recruitment flyer at his church.
“At the time, they were really looking for more African-American fire fighters, as the department had very little African-American participation. And I thought, why not me? It’s been an honor to serve the citizens all of these years.”
Each of the men had their own reasons for joining at first, but it was family that made them stay for so long.
“I have two brothers, but the guys here are just as much my brothers. We are a family,” said Gilbert.
Nesbitt and Carter agreed, explaining that the time training together and handling real fires and emergencies bonds them together with a love and commitment just as strong as blood family.
“Any time you have to trust someone enough to go into a burning building with them, it’s more than a partner at work,’ said Nesbitt. “You are putting their life in your hands and their life in yours. That’s more than just friendship.”
Each of the men are confident that the fire department’s new leadership will continue to serve the citizens and community. Nesbitt noted the department has made multiple safety enhancement over the years to equip firefighters with the right tools and training to fight fires.
During Carter’s time as chief, he worked to enhance safety practices, equipment upgrades and training methods. Under Carter’s leadership the department also improved its ISO rating. An ISO fire insurance rating, also referred to as a fire score or Public Protection Classification (PPC), is a score from 1 to 10 that indicates how well-protected your community is by the fire department.
“We worked to improve our ISO rating from a class 6 to a class 4, which saves Madison residents and businesses with lower insurance premiums.” explained Carter. Volunteers increased from 14 members to 20. The department also formed the Madison Firefighter Charity Fund to assist in purchasing equipment, funding scholarships, and educating the public concerning fire safety.
“We acquired the city’s first ladder truck in an effort to provide better protection to Madison citizens as well as improve safety for firefighters,” said Carter.
Now, Carter, Nesbitt and Gilbert can rest easy and enjoy retirement, but they will always remain part of the Madison Fire Department family.
“We will always be fire fighters, even if we aren’t active,” said Nesbitt. “It’s just who we are…It has been a rewarding experience to serve this community all of these years,” said Nesbitt.
“It’s rewarding to know we had it within us to be dedicated all these years and we are leaving with a clear mind knowing the city of Madison is in good hands,” said Gilbert. “The citizens are going to receive the same level of dedication and service that we provided over the last 30 years. It’s a younger generation coming up and they may do things differently some times, but the end goal is still the same.”
Carter is proud of his time at the department.
“It’s meant a lot to me to carry on what my grandfather started and these men have been a great group of guys to lead. They have been dedicated and easy to work with,” said Carter. “The relationships that I formed with fellow firefighters, city and county personnel, and citizens will be something that I will always cherish.”
Pennington, who may be the youngest fire chief the department has ever had, is grateful to Carter, Nesbitt and Gilbert for equipping him and the others to take the lead.
“It’s a testament to their leadership, really,” said Pennington. “We are going to carry on the legacy they are leaving behind. In the world we live in, there will always be change and a need for it. If you are not changing, you are not adapting. But the guys in front of us did such an incredible job building the department into what it is and giving us that solid foundation. And we will continue that tradition.”