Many irons in the fire
Fire Department spokesman is a busy, dedicated man

LAWRENCEVILLE - Thomas Rutledge is a modest guy.

Though he's battled furious flames, tended to the sick and showed many young firefighters the ropes, the Gwinnett County Fire Department spokesman and recently promoted captain said he doesn't like to be in the limelight.

Affectionately known as "Tommy" or more recently "Captain" around the local firehouses, Rutledge said he couldn't imagine doing any other job.

Having a passion for public safety since high school, Rutledge said it was as a teen growing up in Snellville that he first got a taste of the job he now holds.

The Gwinnett County Fire Explorer Cadet Program - a class which taught him about the job of a firefighter - eventually served as the jumping off point for his fire career.

Though he originally wanted to go into law enforcement, following in his father's footsteps and dreaming of patrolling Georgia roads as a state trooper, Rutledge said he was ultimately drawn toward the Fire Department.

"Lt. Tim Szymanski led our (Fire Explorer) group, coordinated the program and was the public information officer," Rutledge said of one of his former firefighter role model. "I had always been intrigued watching him, and I hold the same position now that he held."

Though Rutledge started as a 911 dispatcher, he eventually went through the training to become a firefighter, taught at the Gwinnett fire training academy for nearly four years and has now settled into the 24/7 job as public information officer, PIO for short, for Gwinnett fire's jurisdiction of more than 400 square miles.

A 20-year veteran of the department, Rutledge prides himself on his precision and rapidness in his work.

"I wouldn't trade this job for anything," Rutledge said. "It is unfortunate that when I'm busy others are having a bad day, but our hearts go out to those people."

As the PIO, Rutledge is on call to the media at all hours of the day and night. Armed with a Blackberry, cell phone and pager, he's constantly in contact with newspaper and TV reporters, collecting information from on-scene battalion chiefs, rushing to crashes and fires and relaying information to the eager media.

"I understand that the media's job is to tell the story and my job is to provide the information," Rutledge said.

Technically a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job, Rutledge said he hasn't worked those hours during the entire four years he's served as PIO, but he said he wouldn't have it any other way.

"I wouldn't do anything else," Rutledge said. "I understand the job. The media never sleeps and it's nothing for them to call me at 2 or 3 in the morning, so I try to do my best to send out an e-mail or call and notify the media."

A family man

Though Rutledge recalls nights when he's had to sleep on the couch in the den because his work pager was buzzing nonstop, he said his wife, Beth, and children are supportive of his demanding job.

While the father of two is always on call with the Fire Department, except for the occasional vacation day, he said he still makes the time for what he said is very important in his life - his family.

The captain recalls times with his children, Katlyn, 8, and 11-year-old Jacob, sitting at the dining room table looking over his father's, a former Snellville police officer, and his own badges and medals.

It's a time Rutledge said he treasures with his children.

"They're proud of their daddy," Rutledge said of Katlyn and Jacob. "Dinners and movies at the theater have been interrupted but they understand. I couldn't ask for a better family."

PIO forever

Going to work every day with a love for the job, Rutledge said he couldn't imagine having a different one.

"It's an honor and privilege to be the spokesperson for this department," Rutledge said. "This is my ministry ... I love what I do and that's why I don't worry about the overtime."

Rutledge said he hopes to remain in the PIO position until he retires, which isn't for about another 10 years - 2017 to be exact.

"My goal is to build this position and leave it a lot better than I found it. Not that it was bad, but you always hope to leave it a little better for your successor," Rutledge said.