Chief's retirement marks end of an era

  • Sunshot by Grayson Williams — Hartwell fire chief Terry Vickery poses for a photo in his office. Vickery will retire at the end of this year after 45 years on the job with the Hartwell Fire Department.
    Sunshot by Grayson Williams — Hartwell fire chief Terry Vickery poses for a photo in his office. Vickery will retire at the end of this year after 45 years on the job with the Hartwell Fire Department.

Hartwell Fire Chief Terry Vickery has witnessed first-hand the evolution of fire fighting — even growing up with a “fire phone” in his house — through the decades of his 45-year career with his hometown department.

The longtime chief recently announced he is now hanging up his equipment and hoping to enjoy a more relaxed retirement, one in which he doesn’t get calls at 2 a.m. to extinguish a burning building.

Vickery doesn’t officially retire until Dec. 31, he said, but he’s going to be taking a few vacations before then as he winds down a career with the Hartwell Fire Department that started in 1975.

Even though he never thought he would actually follow through with making it his career, he said, Vickery became Hartwell’s fire chief in 1991.

Vickery’s father, Maurice Vickery, was a fire chief in Hartwell as well. While Terry was in college studying business, his father needed help at the department, so Terry eventually worked as a volunteer, just to help.

“I thought all that would just be short term, just for a while,” Vickery said. “But I’m still here.”

Vickery worked as an on-shift firefighter from 1978, when the fire department switched to full-time, until 1991 when he became chief.

Throughout the years, Vickery has seen the leaps in equipment and safety upgrades. He said he remembers well the days when a call would come in the middle of the night to a telephone in his house they called the “fire phone” when his dad was chief and they would ride to calls together. His mother, Wassie Vickery, would begin making phone calls to all the local volunteer firefighters.

“I remember riding with my dad to the courthouse fire,” Vickery said. “...Back then, they just had so many more big fires.”

During Vickery’s childhood, a siren, similar to a tornado siren, would sound off if there was a fire in the city. 

“In the daytime, that was the only call you got. If you heard the siren, you knew to come running,” Vickery said.

In 1978, when the city fire department became full-time, the department purchased its first pagers.

“That changed everything,” Vickery said.

The number of fire calls in most departments has gone down significantly over the years, Vickery said, and the same is true for Hartwell. He said the most fire calls ever reported at the Hartwell Fire Department came in 1969.

Besides equipment enhancements, the biggest changes in fire fighting, as Vickery sees it, came when regulations and standards in the industry were introduced. Firefighters have many regulations for how to go about handling each incident, something Vickery said makes the job more difficult, but also more safe.

“The way we used to do stuff is no comparison to the way we do it now,” Vickery said.

The department also began enforcing fire codes in 1978, something Vickery says also improved safety within the city because buildings started being constructed to code. An added safety feature is that the building code enforcement is done by the fire department, meaning they know the ins and outs of most buildings in town.

“That’s kind of unique that the fire department actually enforces building codes too, but it’s really worked good for us,” Vickery said.

The training firefighters receive has changed tremendously as well, Vickery said. Where firefighters in the past would just be trained in the basics of firefighting, they are now trained in a variety of rescue and medical techniques.

“Back in the early days, all we knew was how to fight fire,” Vickery said. “These guys now, we do it all. Firefighting, emergency medical training, all kinds of rescue training.”

Vickery said he’s not going to miss being on-call when he retires, and hopes to enjoy travelling with his wife Peggy, without worrying about incidents happening at home.

After he retires, Vickery said current assistant chief Alan Daniel will take over as Hartwell’s next fire chief.

“It should be a smooth transition,” Vickery said about Daniel.