FORSYTH COUNTY — Forsyth County Fire Station 1 was packed with firefighters and family Wednesday morning, but all sat silent as they listened to the 911 dispatch radio.
A woman’s voice came over the scanner to commemorate the retirement of Tommy Coleman after 43 years of service to the local fire department.
“The knowledge he had to offer and the way he led” was what Station 14 Lt. Brian DeStefano said he respected most about Coleman, who was his battalion chief when he started with the department in 2007.
“The way he led his shift is very commendable,” DeStefano said. “He’ll always try to fight for you. He always had an answer. It may not be the one you want, but he had it.”
When Coleman began in 1972, there was not much of a department. The entire force was volunteer based, and any spare truck or hose they could find was used.
“We would hold bake sales and car washes just to get money to fund us, and now we’re a multi-million-dollar department with the best equipment in Georgia,” Coleman said.
He started volunteer firefighting after his father was in the fire service in Roswell.
“I’ve got it in my blood,” he said.
But that may not be enough for many to stick around for 43 years. He was a firefighter in Atlanta while he volunteered in Forsyth County until 1999, when the local department was formed and offered paid positions.
“I liked helping people and the idea of developing something that would be something big someday,” Coleman said.
And he remained in the position to help people as one of the first battalion chiefs in the county.
“For those of you who don’t realize it, Station 12, the motor maintenance division and the public safety complex, Tommy Coleman bought that land,” Forsyth County Fire Chief Danny Bowman told the packed room at Station 1. “I bet he never told you that. I’m telling you now. That was the foresight that he had at that time.”
Bowman recounted Coleman has only been to his office a few times.
“But when he came in, he would respectfully ask, ‘Chief, can we close the door? ’Cause it’s going to get loud.’ He was always respectful, but he told me always what was on his mind with the bark still left on the tree,” Bowman said. “And I appreciate that.
“I don’t need someone coming into my office and telling me that I’m doing a good job. I want to know how I can do better. Tommy did that for me.”
And he did that for everyone around him.
Capt. Corey Kendrix entered the fire service in Gwinnett County when he was 17. Now he is married to Coleman’s daughter and continues to be mentored by his father-in-law.
“As soon as I met him, I never lost sight of what I wanted to be, and he inspired that,” Kendrix said.
Mentoring and helping create and maintain the department aside, Coleman said he’ll really just miss the people.
“I got a lot of good friends here,” he said. “It’s going to be weird. I’m used to getting up every Thursday for work.”