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Spend a few minutes talking with new Carrollton Fire Chief Mike Terrell and you’ll see that his passion for emergency services runs through his veins.
While he has just been fire chief since May 6, Terrell has been a volunteer with the Carrollton Fire Department since 1985.
“It’s sort of a way of life for us,” Terrell said during a Friday interview in his office at the fire station.
Terrell replaces former fire chief Greg Beck, who took a job as a firefighter with the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Beck will remain on the department as the volunteer deputy chief.
In addition to Terrell’s years as a firefighter, both he and his wife, Charlene, are emergency medical technicians. Terrell said he just completed paramedic school and will take his national board exams this summer to get his license.
He also serves as a Level 2 EMT instructor for the state, and he and his wife teach EMT classes.
Several factors led to his involvement with Carrollton Fire Department. He said he was on the fire brigade atM&T Chemicals and there were several others who worked there who also volunteered. On top of that, his wife’s father and brother were members of the fire department.
“You ought to come on down and join up with us,” is what he said they told him some 28 years ago.
The timing was right this year for him to leave PMC Organometallix and look to take on the department’s top job.
“I was old enough to start early retirement from there,” he said. After 34 1/2 years in the safety department at the chemical plant, he said he talked it over with his wife and they decided it was the right move, despite the lower pay that comes with more hours.
When he retired from PMC, Terrell was the behavioral safety operator, teaching safety classes, observing people doing their jobs’ day-to-day tasks and looking for ways to help them prevent injuries.Terrell brings a lifetime of training in emergency services with him to the new career he’s starting. He said he’s had a lot of safety training, hazardous materials training, EMS training and has spent a lot of time going to school. He has also volunteered for the rescue squad and the regional hazmat team.
At PMC, Terrell had seven weeks of vacation a year that he mostly used to attend classes.
“It’s sort of become my hobby in the past,” he said. “Some people fish, some people hunt, I invested my time in emergency services.”
Despite all this, he never really pictured himself sitting there in the fire chief’s chair.
When long-time fire chief Randy Tharp retired for health reasons a few years back, he said he knew he was too close to being locked into retirement to quit. “When Greg was offered the job at the airport, I was past that point,” he said. “It just sort of worked out — a good fit.”
He already had experience working with Mayor Gene McMurry. Terrell was deputy director of emergency management under Sheldon Scott for several years back when McMurry was county judge-executive.
With the knowledge of the department as a volunteer, Terrell was ready to be chief.
“I know all the equipment, all of the guys,” he said. “We’ve worked together for numbers of years. It’s been a fairly smooth transition so far.”
He said he is now beginning to develop his plans for the department.
“The main thing I’m looking at is getting active membership back up,” he said. Terrell also wants to be sure the fire department is in line with all the fire commission, FEMA and other requirements so they can apply for grants “and everything will be in good standing when we do that.”
He said this will help them obtain new equipment. “If it goes to plan, we will be ordering a new truck next year,” he said.
One of his biggest challenges will be building membership on the department.
“This day and age, volunteerism is down in the majority of the country, it’s not something that’s just local to this area,” he said. “If you stop and think about it, our lifestyles have changed in the past 15 years. We’ve gotten into a faster pace and gotten involved in more things. The fire service itself has evolved and it requires a lot more training and a lot more time commitment than it did 20 years ago.”
Terrell said it’s difficult to get people to commit as a volunteer. “You put in another part-time job every week without getting paid for it,” he said. “It takes somebody that’s dedicated and wants to do it to get the people who are going to stay for the years of service.”
When a volunteer signs on, state requirements say the person needs 150 training hours that Terrell said can take some 300 hours to get. After that they need 20 training hours to continue as volunteer firefighters.
Terrell’s full-time job requires that he have 100 hours of continuing education training a year.
Why does he and so many others give their time as volunteer firefighters?
“Personal satisfaction is my biggest reward from it,” Terrell said. “It’s something I enjoy doing, and I enjoy getting out and helping the community and helping people. “
He said firefighters see people at their worst.
“When they call us, it’s not to ‘Come on over, let’s have a cookout,’” he said with a laugh. “We’re there when things are going bad. And just being able to help them and get them started back on the better side of that is a lot of personal reward.”
Terrell plans to continue the department’s educational and safety programs.
“We’re definitely going to continue the programs we do with the grade schools,” he said. “We do a lot of fire prevention training for the public, and we’re going to continue with that.”
Terrell said the fire department also will continue its commitment to the WHAS Crusade for Children. Firefighters will be out going door-to-door this Wednesday and Thursday, May 29 and 30 to raise funds for the program. They will have their annual roadblock set up Friday and Saturday, May 31 and June 1.
The Carrollton department also will continue with its annual golf scramble, which will be moved to the fall this year.
Terrell said he’s now taking time to catch up on how everything has been done in the past. “Do we want to keep it that way, do we want to change it,” he said.
These decisions will not just be his, Terrell said.
“This department is run by volunteers. There’s no way I can do all of these programs and things by myself,” he said. “As I told them, there will be times that I have to step up, be the chief and make decisions. But the majority of the time we’re going to get their opinion and they’re going to have a say in things we do, how we do them. They’ll get to have their say.”
Terrell said the volunteers are “our strongest asset.”
There are currently 19 volunteers on the fire department. He hopes he can get that number back up into the mid- to upper-20s. The volunteers do receive payment from the city of Carrollton for their work — $17 for a meeting and $20 for a fire run.
Terrell would like to see the volunteer numbers rise so there are enough people to provide coverage for the city, even when members are at work, off spending time with their families, on vacation or simply out of town.
“I would like to get us up close to that,” Terrell said of the 26 to 28 members the department had when he joined.
Terrell and his wife, a native of Carrollton, reside in the city. He moved here in 1984 after he started dating Charlene. But he had worked at M&T (now PMC Organometalix) since 1979 and previously lived in Warsaw.
While he grew up mostly around the Covington area, he was born in Biloxi, Miss. and had also lived in Murfreesboro, Tenn., before his family came back to Kentucky.
Terrell said his mother is originally from Grant County and his father is from the Corbin area.