Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Cutline to come
NORCROSS -- The first fire Tom Griffin had to put out as a Gwinnett County firefighter he accidentally set himself.
Griffin, who took the keys and opened Fire Station No. 1 for the first time in 1971, was cooking some chicken pot pies in the oven of the Norcross station. When he went outside to watch his comrades play horseshoes, the pies burned.
"We didn't know if we'd be around the second year," said Griffin, as he reminisced about the first year of Gwinnett's fire service, with one station and 10 men.
On its 40th anniversary, the department now has 30 stations and 850 staffers.
A lot has changed since the years when firefighters often didn't have an air pack and knew a fire was too hot when their ears literally began to melt.
But one thing that remains is the camaraderie, said Chief Bill Myers, who spends a holiday each year manning a station.
"I can only imagine what it would be like in 1971 with 10 folks," he said, adding that history has laid a foundation for success, for countless lives saved.
"I'm not sure I can tell you what it has meant to Gwinnett County. I can tell you from the cards, the phone calls and the emails we get every single day what it means to individual families," Myers said. "What it's meant for this county as far as quality of life and for people having a sense of security and have a feeling they would be taken care of is tremendous."
Before a professional fire service was contemplated in Gwinnett, local residents depended on volunteers.
But when Griffin moved into the newly developed Peachtree Corners community, he and his neighbors learned that the Norcross volunteer brigade would turn around once the truck passed the city's boundary.
Spurred by seven deaths in 1967, Commissioner Ray Gunnin pushed for a countywide fire service, bringing the issue to ballots.
That first vote, though, was a loser, failing by a 4-to-1 margin. With most of the population in the cities and protected by volunteers, only the members of the Pinckneyville district, which includes Peachtree Corners, liked the idea.
"We felt we had a pretty good department, and we could handle the situation there," said Harry Wilson, a member of the Buford volunteer department who voted against the referendum the first time.
So the next go round, the choice was left up to individual communities, with voters knowing that if the service began, a tax would be levied for the area. With the promise of more industry on the horizon, only Norcross residents voted aye.
Ray Mattison, who worked as a firefighter in the Air Force, thought his hometown deserved a professional force.
"I thought it was important for the county to grow," he said.
Mattison became the department's first chief. He and Griffin opened the doors of Station 1 then hired eight more men to begin the service.
Quickly, Norcross residents saw a huge drop in insurance rates due, and the idea caught on in other communities. Five years later, Lawrenceville was the last community to approve the service, and by then the community passed the referendum with an 8-to-1 margin.
"The fire tax is the only tax that puts money back in the citizens' pocket," Mattison said, explaining that the lowering of insurance rates counts for more cash than the tax costs.
Wilson said he was quickly convinced of the need in Buford. He later joined the service, retiring as captain in 1985.
"We could not be the county we are today without the fire department," he said.
"I think it's brought in a lot of industry, subdivisions and business," Griffin added.
Men like Griffin, Mattison and Wilson have stood in the middle of hell, flames all around, to protect the people of Gwinnett.
"It was a very special time in, I think, all of our lives," Mattison said of the early days in the department. "We were very proud of what we did there.
"Success was created," said the chief, who left Gwinnett in 1984 and returned to the fire service in 1992, becoming the head of the Winder department. He is set to retire from that position in July. "We were able to do something unique in Gwinnett County. I think the foundation was good, and we have a lot of people to thank for that."
Over the decades, Gwinnett's firefighters witnessed tragedy, like the 1983 fire that killed eight disabled people at Annandale Village. And they witnessed miracles, such as the Lilburn First Baptist Church fire two decades or so ago, when everything burned but the Bible.
With better technology and techniques the tragedies have been fewer and the rescues more frequent, the men said, not just in fighting fires but in saving lives.
For decades, funeral homes would send hearses to transport people to the hospital, but with the Vietnam war came the idea that emergency care could save lives.
Griffin was the 23rd person in the state certified as an emergency medical technician, and in 1973, R.T. Patterson funeral home donated a van to act as an ambulance.
Wilson said the first time he delivered a baby, the doctor accused him of trying to take his job, but after a while the practice became more accepted, thanks in part to the television show "Emergency."
Once a young woman came to his station to introduce herself to Wilson. She was the infant he delivered, all grown up.
"That's why you get into this, to serve, to help people," he said. "You are doing something for people who can look you back in the eye and show you how well you are doing."
It's that desire for service that has lead so many to the department, including Wilson's two sons and his step-grandson.
In 1986, the fire department took over the county ambulance service from the hospital system and now every firefighter is trained as an EMT.
At first, the idea "terrified" many of the firefighters, said Philip Wood, who retired last year.
But, according to Capt. Thomas Rutledge, a second generation firefighter in the department, taking over the ambulance service opened up all new possibilities for the service.
"It helped open the door" for services like the hazardous material team, swift water rescue unit and technical rescue unit.
"Back then, the fire department fought fires," he said. "Based on the needs of the citizens, we have evolved from a fire department to a full-services emergency response organization."
The integration, Chief Myers said, has been one of the positives that have kept the fire department successful even in troubled financial times. Whereas DeKalb's department nearly had to lay off an entire recruit class last month, Gwinnett officials were able to open two new stations last year.
"We have proven our value to this county and this community year after year after year," he said. "We don't let people down."
In his retirement, Griffin has spent his time talking to recruits at each of Gwinnett's fire academy session, and he is amazed at the changes that have come.
Turnout gear now protects every surface of a firefighter's body, helmets are equipped with visual read-outs of the air left in a pack, and firefighters arrive on scene knowing where a hydrant is and sometimes even the layout of the building, thanks to pictometry images in a computer in the fire engine.
"You have more trucks in your bays than we had in the whole department," Griffin says of the newest stations. And remembering that first fire in Norcross, "the kitchens are to die for."
"I look at these young guys. They weren't even born," when it all began, Griffin said. "This department, I have seen it grow, grow, grow, and that is fantastic.
"I'm proud of it."