Fire chief retires after 33 years fighting blazes

LAWRENCEVILLE - Terry Pierce couldn't help but tease his friend Steve Rolader, as Rolader, Gwinnett's fire chief, climbed on to a fire engine for one last time, this time to pose for a photograph.

"The last fire apparatus he rode had to be fed hay," Pierce joked, as the pair's final days on the county fire department came to an end.

Gwinnett's fire services have come a long way since the days of the bucket brigade being pulled by horses, but many of the people who helped develop the county department in its first years are stepping down.

Today is the last day for Rolader and 47 other members of the department, who took retirement incentives intended to trim the county payroll.

"It's going to be very emotional," Rolader said of leaving his job. "I just love everybody."

On his first day as a firefighter in 1976, Rolader said he was thrown into the proverbial deep end.

That day, he worked two bad car wrecks, a suicide and a house fire.

At the fire, the incident commander decided to see what the rookie was made out of, and he sent him to the house's attic.

"The electrical fires were burning and popping. It had that blue arc, and it scared me to death," Rolader said. "I had barely learned to put my gear on."

At the end of the shift, Rolader went home and told his wife he didn't know if he could go back.

But instead, the Tucker High School graduate fell in love with the fire service, and he never looked back.

He built a reputation as one of the gutsiest firefighters around, getting second and third degree burns from staying in one blaze too long.

"He built a good reputation on that," Pierce said.

"Back then, we were all like cowboys," Rolader added, saying many of the men had their ears "trimmed" in the emergency room after the heat from fires caused the cartilage to melt.

Today, Rolader takes pride in safety for his department.

Instead of talking about taking risks, the biggest point he makes to his employees is that service is the most important part of the job.

"Chief Rolader has been a very successful and respected fire chief, not because he pounded his chest or shouted orders, but because he cared about people and was passionate about providing excellent service," Gwinnett Fire spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge said. "He has instilled in each of us the attributes of a true leader. He was and will always be a firefighter's fire chief."

Not only is Rolader stepping down, but two of three district commanders, including Pierce, are leaving, along with three battalion chiefs.

Three decades ago, Pierce was the quarterback on North Gwinnett High School's football team, and Mike Smith, the other retiring district commander, was a running back.

Teamwork, both say, comes in handy when fighting fires.

"Everything you do in the fire department is a team effort," Pierce said. "You get that camaraderie and sense of accomplishment."

But all three agree that the team is going to be OK, even if a few leaders leave the field.

"We're going to lose a lot of experience, but that will be replaced by people with a lot more enthusiasm and better ways of doing things," Smith said.

"Today, our folks are running up and down the road helping people, just as they did five, 10, 15 or 30 years ago," Rolader said. "Our people define us, and it has nothing to do with anything else."

Earlier this week, Assistant Chief Bill Myers was tapped to take Rolader's place as chief.

"Steve, Terry, and Mike have contributed over 100 years of progressive service to the citizens of Gwinnett," Myers said. "Each, in his own way, has had a positive impact on more lives than they could ever know. Their influence will continue to be visible for years to come."

SideBar: At A Glance

The following people are retiring from the Gwinnett County Fire Department:

Phil Allison

Horace Davis

Wayne Keneipp

Jimmy Rogers

John Athens

Wayne Dixson

Ed Knopick

Steve Rolader

Ben Barton

Boyd Ervin

Vic McCallum

Wayne Roper

David Beaty

Mike Ethridge

William McLendon

Mike Smith

Rick Braley

Ron Fields

Warren Mendel

Scott Sperling

Mark Bruce

Brenda Harris

Donna Mitchell

Jim Tedder

Hank Burnette

Bruce Herr

Don Nettles

Donny Thomas

Terry Chaffin

Chuck Hewatt

Jeff Parrish

Ray Trott

George Childs

Ricky Hunnicutt

Michael Patton

Carol Uhlich

Steve Cown

Butch Hunter

Carroll Payne

Michele Weaver

Tony Cown

Bert Jones

Terry Pierce

Faye Williams

Mike Crowe

Pete Keane

Alan Ritchie

Philip Wood