In 2002, the Forsyth County Fire Department was preparing to purchase its first hook-and-ladder truck, but doing so would create a problem: No one in the department knew how to operate the truck’s rear-steering tiller.
Tillering requires unique skills. The tiller steers independently from the front half of the hook-and-ladder truck — it’s like driving a trailer — and one false move can mean disaster.
“And tillering isn’t just on a beautiful morning,” said former Forsyth County Fire Chief Danny Bowman. “How about in a driving rain with fog? And how far is the driver in front of you, 65 feet? Driving a $2 million fire truck?”
Bowman, then a division chief, was tasked with hiring someone to implement a tillering program at the department.
He chose Jimmy Hildebrand.
“If any individual in the fire service could have the moniker of legend, it’s him,” Bowman said.
Hildebrand retired from the Forsyth County Fire Department on Thursday, Oct. 17, after 48 years in the fire service, including 17 in Forsyth County. The department held a celebration event that was attended by county personnel, along with friends, family and former co-workers of Hildebrand’s.
They came to acknowledge a career that began in 1970 by accident. Hildebrand had just left the Coast Guard after five years and wanted to be an officer with the Atlanta Police Department. As part of the application process, Hildebrand took a test, which the city gave to both fire and police applicants.
Out of about 100 applicants, Hildebrand was one of 20 or so who passed. The police department offered him a position to start in two weeks. The fire department said he could start the next day.
“I needed a job,” Hildebrand said. “So that’s how I wound up with the fire department.”
Hildebrand joined the family’s annals of firefighters. His uncle was chief of the Atlanta Fire Department at the time. His grandfather, dad and brother all had careers in the fire service, too. Hildebrand got his start at Station 11, “right there at The Varsity,” he said. He moved to the Fulton County Fire Department in 1978 and was stationed in Sandy Springs, along with Bowman. Hildebrand filled a variety of roles over the years: EMT, dive team, bomb squad.
But his favorite job was operating the tiller.
“Best job in the fire department,” Hildebrand said.
In 2000, Hildebrand retired from Fulton County, but being away from a fire department “was weird,” he said. He had moved to Forsyth County by then, and when the department sought to establish its first group of battalion chiefs, Hildebrand jumped back in.
Bowman put him to work right away on establishing the department’s tiller training program. Seventeen years later, that program is still based on Hildebrand’s teaching. Fire departments now come to Forsyth County from around the state and Southeast to learn tiller operations. Most recently, the county helped the city of Charleston, S.C.
“That’s one of his legacies,” said Division Chief Jason Shivers,” is that street knowledge — especially in tiller operations — that is going to live on here in our program forever.”
Bowman said Hildebrand’s years of action in the Atlanta and Sandy Springs areas made him an expert in firefighting strategy and tactics as well as personnel management.
“If there’s anyone in the fire service who wanted to learn … he was the go-to person,” Bowman said.
He added, “Anything in the world can happen on Ga. 400, Interstate 285, Roswell Road. We had 70 apartment complexes.”
Hildebrand was content to stay in the ranks with “the troops” rather than pursue a position in headquarters.
“I enjoy the job,” Hildebrand said, “and I especially enjoy the people.”
Hildebrand acknowledged retiring for good would require some getting used to, but he plans to make frequent visits.
“I just can’t walk away. I mean, this is family here,” Hildebrand said. “It’d be like just walking away from your family and not talking to them.”
Besides, the department’s retirement gift for Hildebrand was a custom set of golf clubs. A group took Hildebrand the day before Thursday’s celebration to get him fitted. Hildebrand said he won’t use the clubs until he can set up a tee time with “a bunch of us and go somewhere and play.”
“They made me look good on fire scenes and wrecks,” Hildebrand said.
And after Thursdays’ celebration ended, Hildebrand spent the rest of his last day in the fire department doing what he loved most.
He operated the tiller.
“It’s been a great ride,” Hildebrand said. “It’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”