Firefighting isn’t simply a job for Fire Chief Mike Smith, it’s in his blood. But after 40 years of knocking down fires, Smith decided to part ways and announced last month his retirement from the South Bryan County Volunteer Fire Department.
His peers and coworkers sent him off in style during the department’s Christmas party in December.
Smith started out his career in Thunderbolt, where he became the youngest fire chief in Thunderbolt history at the age of 26.
His father, father-in-law and three brothers before him were also firefighters. Now, years later, his nephew has chosen the same path that Smith now says he almost can’t bear to give up.
The legacy is one of camaraderie, according to the former chief, and though he’ll be taking a step back in the years to come, he has a few words of advice to the rookies coming up the pipe.
“They’ve just got to listen — listen to the older firefighters and listen to their leaders,” said Smith. “That’s what I always did, and that’s what made me a better firefighter.”
Bryan County Emergency Services Chief Freddy Howell has only known Smith for a year but said Smith’s influence on the other firefighters has been clear. He said Smith will be missed by those who’ve grown to respect his leadership.
“He’s a dynamic leader and he’s just a guy that people want to follow,” said Howell. “He earns his respect by getting to know the people he works with and by treating them well.”
As the youngest fire chief of Thunderbolt Fire Department, Smith is credited with implementing an Incident Command System that was later instituted in other departments around the area.
After his move to South Bryan County just two years later, Smith established new training regimens as volunteer fire chief, instituted an annual Public Safety Day, created a Junior Firefighter program and even oversaw the creation of the Firefighters Memorial at the County Administrative Complex.
Most importantly, Smith did most of this without any compensation.
“It was a lot of time spent away from his family, and it was a lot of time spent giving to his community,” Howell said. “And he didn’t get paid for any of it.”
South Bryan County’s volunteer fire chief worked regular hours during the day and then came home to his family, oftentimes only to be woken by calls back to the fire station.
“It was a lot of long days and a lot of long nights, but in return I’ve got some really fond memories — especially of working alongside my father and brothers,” Smith said.
And while it may seem like Smith is hanging up his helmet for good, he still plans to be an active member of the firefighting community and attend department meetings as an honorary member.
His fellow firefighters and Howell have agreed to let him go, but say they’ll continue to look to him for advice in the future.