As a beep sounded across the intercom at the Ardmore Fire Department Friday, Feb. 28, former Shift Commander Scott Richards stopped what he was doing and paused to listen to dispatch.
It was Richards’ last shift at the fire department, but when he knew he was needed he leaped to his feet and hurried to the scene just as he’s been doing for the last 35 years.
After spending all but four of those years with the Ardmore Fire Department, Richards holds the title as the department’s longest serving firefighter.
“It’s just what I’ve known. I wouldn’t say it’s my passion, it’s something I feel like I’ve done a good job at and have had an aptitude for,” Richards said. “I really like the guys that I work with and felt like as long as I could make a contribution to the department I wanted to stay and serve as long as possible.”
When he was around 14 or 15 years old, Richards said he worked at a convenience store where he would help dispatch the firefighters. “This was back before 911, so in the area that I lived at the time, if you had a fire you would call the number which rang at our convenience store.”
A few years later, at 17 years old, the opportunity arose for him to become a volunteer firefighter at the Dickson Volunteer Fire Department.
After graduating from high school Richards secured a job at the Airpark Fire Department in Gene Autry and three years later he ended up at the Ardmore Fire Department, among the people he says have become like family to him.
“We all live in the station together frequently and we spend more time with each other than we do with our families, so you develop some close relationships with these guys,” Richards said. “I think that’s probably for me, and for many of the guys that work here and leave, they’ll tell you that’s the thing they’re going to miss about it a lot.”
The camaraderie, the brotherhood and the common experiences the firefighters share is unlike any other, Richards said. Whether it’s crawling through a dark, smoky building during a fire, responding to a bad car wreck or even an unusual, funny situation, they’ve been through a lot together.
“There’s no place else I can go and talk to people about the same thing that I talk to these guys about because they don’t have a clue what I’m talking about,” Richards said. “That’s probably some of my favorite things -- the time that I spent with the guys and the conversations that we had, the jokes that we tell and being in hard places together.”
The hard things are always the ones they tend to remember the most, he said. Richards served as a shift commander for over half of his career and one of the recollections that haunts him the most is when there was an explosion while firefighters were inside a building.
“The guys inside called for a mayday, that means they felt like they were in trouble,” Richards said. While they ended up making it out without any injuries, Richards still remembers that call over the radio as one of the most stressful times in his career. “That was worse for me than anything else.”
Worse than a massive fire at an old rock building on 12th Ave. where Richards said he realized his life might be in danger. At the time, in 1995, the city of Ardmore was attempting to privatize the fire department and tensions ran high.
Richards said the firefighters were under a lot of pressure to perform well and he was determined to put the fire out, although things were not going well.
“I was crawling down the hallway and the fire conditions were really bad. It got to a point where I thought ‘You know, this is how you get killed’,” Richards said. “So I basically backed up and me and the guy that were fighting the fire backed back outside. Basically as soon as I walked outside, the whole interior of the building just kind of went up in flames.”
Over the past 35 years, the frequency of structure fires has declined and other changes have spurred from within the fire department.
Not long after Richards began working at the Ardmore department he said the firefighters began lobbying state legislators for a new law regarding negotiations with the city.
Formerly, the firefighters would have to bargain under a law which made it so that their contract would roll over if an agreement was not reached with the city. Contracts include negotiations on things like pay raises for the firefighters and allocation of funds and use of tax revenue.
However, the current Binding Interest Arbitration law makes it so that the people in the community can vote on a contract if there is not an agreement between the city and the fire department.
“The Ardmore Fire Department was instrumental in helping get that law passed. Then we bargained under that law and it’s basically what saved our jobs from being privatized,” Richards said. “It gives us an incentive to do a good job and to make sure that the people we serve are happy with our services.”
The city’s commitment to ensuring the department has good fire fighting equipment has also improved over the years— along with general advancements in the quality of bunker gear and equipment, Richards said. “We have some really good equipment now as opposed to what we had when I first started working here.”
Richards punched out of work, removing his gear for the last time Friday night. After all of the ups and downs and years of memories shared with his close comrades, he said it may take a while for his retirement to set in, but he’s looking forward to finally kicking back and relaxing.
“I’m thinking I’ll have to go a couple of months maybe before it sinks in,” Richards said. “I’m good at compartmentalizing things so right now I’m just focused on what’s right in front of me. It’ll take a while for it to sink in, but I’m sure I’m going to enjoy not being stressed anymore.”