It was standing room only in a reception room of Tam’s Backstage on Tuesday as firefighters, elected and county officials, family and more celebrated the retirement of Forsyth County Fire Chief Danny Bowman.
Tuesday marked Bowman’s last day as chief after 15 years and 50 total in the fire service, and he received send-offs including honors and lots of well-wishers thanking him for his service.
“I’m not leaving the fire department in a perfect situation, I'm leaving the fire department in a manner that is a foundation. It's the foundation of a house: it’s firm, it's ready to build upon over the next 15 years,” Bowman said. “Give [the next chief] 15 years out from now, and you will have a fire department that is second to none in the state of Georgia.”
Bowman, an Atlanta native and Air Force veteran, began his career as a firefighter in 1968 with the Atlanta Fire Department and transferred to the then-newly formed Fulton County Fire Department in 1977. He came to Forsyth County as a division chief in 2001 and became the county’s director of emergency management in 2002.
He was promoted to Forsyth County Fire Chief in 2003.
Hundreds of visitors stopped by to show their gratitude, and Bowman was given several honors and awards.
Forsyth County District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills announced the North Forsyth Rotary Club would be giving a $1,000 scholarship in Bowman’s name for those going into public safety and gave him a special plaque bearing the insignia of Pierce Manufacturing, a company renowned for their fire trucks.
“From the time you were elected, you got the call and you were invited over to the public safety complex to visit Chief Bowman,” Mills said. “He would give you a little trip, you’d walk with him down to the maintenance and you’d hear how important it was to buy only Pierce fire trucks and to only be worked on by people that were Pierce mechanic certified. It’s that kind of leadership that I hope will always follow after Chief Bowman.”
Though Sheriff Ron Freeman was out of town for the ceremony due to training, representatives with the sheriff’s office presented a plaque and resolution from Freeman naming Bowman an honorary sheriff of Forsyth County.
Rep. Rob Woodall said he didn’t attend the event as a Congressman but as a “fan of Chief Bowman, just like everyone else in this room.”
“We asked the United States Capitol to fly a flag in your honor to celebrate your 50 years of service,” Woodall said, as he gave Bowman the flag.
Rep. Doug Collins also honored Bowman on the House floor on Sept. 26, reading his biography into the Congressional Record.
Many current and former officials were on hand and shared some of their memories and lessons learned from Bowman.
Interim Fire Chief Barry Head credited Bowman with modernizing the fire department and said his leadership affected all those in the fire department and made it a “great place to be.”
“I wouldn’t call it an impact; I would call it a legacy,” Head said. “He’s leaving a legacy behind. We’re going to be able to continue to build on the foundation he set forth for a long time to come.”
Board of Education Chairwoman Ann Crow, who is retiring at the end of the year, said Bowman was a great man whose role as an administrator “set the tone for the county.”
“He’s always been a partner of ours, always reached out when we needed help, especially with the emergency management,” she said. “They’ve been good partners about coming and visiting the schools and sharing their engines and all their conversations with us.”
Commission Chairman Todd Levent said his history with Bowman goes back to both of their time in Fulton County, when Bowman served as a lieutenant at the fire department and Levent was deputy marshal.
“The fact that he came here with all of his experience and we were able to keep him all these years, Forsyth County citizens are the winners, and I have thanked his family over and over again to allow us to have him for all these years,” Levent said. “He has turned us from a very beginner fire station into a national award-winning fire station, which we should all be proud of.”
Former Forsyth County Manager Doug Derrer said even though Bowman reported to him, he learned a lot over his years working with the fire chief.
“I’ve worked with a lot of departments. I've worked for several counties with a lot of directors and I will say that this is, in my opinion, one of the finest departments, not just in Forsyth County but in the nation. In the state, sure, but in the nation,” Derrer said.
“I worked very closely with Chief Bowman on projects, on budget and I've never worked with anybody that was so professional. It was just an honor and a privilege to work with him.”
The event was also attended by members of Bowman’s family, including daughters Kathy Boone and Kimberly Brooks.
Bowman said his daughters used to come with him over the weekends to fire stations.
“He would come to the house first, so flashing lights and sirens,” Brooks said. “We’d get to go around the neighborhood before it got to go to the fire station.”
Division Chief Jason Shivers said Bowman was leaving big shoes to fill and his impact on the department was “hard to describe.”
“Not only has he been my supervisor but he's been a true leader, a mentor of mine and, and this is something I don't use lightly, a father figure,” Shivers said. “You can’t quantify how his leadership impacts someone's personal and professional development, so certainly him leaving is leaving behind this gap in my career and of the department’s that is going to be hard to fill.”
In half a century, Bowman said a lot has changed in firefighting, ranging from improved safety from riding on the back of fire trucks and being issued only a helmet to firefighters not being allowed in a burning building “unless every square inch of skin is covered” to who can even apply to be a firefighter.
“Insofar as who gets hired, it's no longer political,” Bowman said. “When I went on the fire department, there were very few African-Americans, there were zero females, and I swore that if I was ever able to correct that it would be on my watch that I was able to do that, and I have.”
Bowman said he learned how to be a chief and how to manage a department from the “World War II crowd” and was “deeply, deeply grateful for those individuals.”
“I am carrying on the World War II crowd who taught you that you really don't have to be mean-spirited to be a fire chief, that you really can be a humanitarian,” he said. “You don't have to come to work and say, ‘What negative is going to happen to me today?’ What's going to happen to you are challenges from the moment you arrive at 7 a.m. until you depart at 5 p.m., and even at 5, you still get telephone calls at home of issues that come up to the board of commissioners.”
He noted that he had been to every board of commissioners meeting to the best of his knowledge and said no commissioners had ever been disrespectful toward him and typically approved his requests unanimously.
As many noted Bowman as a professional, he said his intention as chief had been to professionalize the department.
“What does that word mean? It means a response time from the 911 call to on-the-scene provision of emergency services and an average [response time] of about five-and-a-half minutes,” Bowman said.
He said Forsyth County saw several new or replacement fire stations in his tenure, along with a much larger budget than his first 15 years ago.
“You’ve got to understand, when I took over in 2003, the budget was $6 million,” Bowman said. “Today, it's $25 million. That shows progression, and we've rebuilt nine first stations since the board asked me to be chief of the department.”
Bowman said the new stations were important due to how much time firefighters spend in them.
“You have to understand there's a symbiosis here,” he said. “The firefighters spend one-third of their lives in the fire station. I must provide them excellent quarters. We've done that by (spending) an average of $3 million per fire station.”