Sheppard to retire as White Hall Fire Chief after 44 years
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By Carmen Ensinger
After 44 years of serving on the White Hall Fire Department, 25 of those as its Fire Chief, Garry Sheppard will hang up his bunker gear and his helmet for the last time on March 1, putting an end to a stellar second “career.”
“I just think it is time to step down and let someone else take hold and run it for a while,” Sheppard said when asked why he is stepping down just one year shy of the 45-year mark. “I have been wanting to retire for the last year and we were kind of right in the middle of moving to the new fire district from being a city fire department and I didn’t want to leave until that work was done and we were kind of set up. I just felt it was time. The fact that it was my 25th year as Fire Chief was just a happy coincidence I guess.”
Sheppard, 69, grew up in Manchester and graduated from Winchester High School. His first association with a fire department was when he was still living in Manchester.
“Back then, Manchester still had a fire department,” Sheppard said. “When I turned 18, I became a member of the Manchester Fire Department and I must have spent about five years on that department. I had two or three years when I wasn’t on a fire department when I moved from where I was living and moved to White Hall and then I got on this fire department down here.”
In almost four and a half decades with the fire department, Sheppard has seen a world of changes take place in all aspects of firefighting – from the fire trucks themselves to the equipment used by the fire fighters.
“In the last 44 years, I have been involved in buying I guess probably four or five new fire trucks,” he said. “The first new one that I can remember, I had been on the department maybe five years and I think that first truck we paid maybe $45-$50,000 for it, brand new from the factory. Our newest truck right now is probably getting close to 14 years old and we paid $245,000 for it. If you had to buy a new truck today you would probably pay closer to $375,000.”
There have also been some big changes in the equipment that the departments are required to have.
“When I first started, air packs were something that we didn’t even have,” he said. “We were lucky to have maybe one, which wasn’t even safe. We never even had air packs, so there is another big thing that has happened – interior attacks on fires with air packs. Practically every structure fire we go to now, almost everyone has air packs on, which is a big change.”
Bunker gear is something else which has also changed immensely over the past 40 years.
“When I first got on, we just had a pretty simple set of bunker gear, there really wasn’t much to it, in fact, if it had caught on fire, it would have probably burned up,” he said. “Now, the equipment we use is a lot safer. The helmets are a lot safer and the coat, pants and gloves will stand a lot of heat. The gloves alone are 100 times better than what we used to have.”
As the equipment has evolved over the years, so have the rules and regulations.
“There are a lot more rules and regulations we have to follow now that we didn’t have to follow back when I first started,” Sheppard said. “There are a lot more liability issues on the officers and the Chief should someone get hurt, or God forbid, killed, you are going to have to defend what you did while they were getting hurt or killed. There are a lot more guidelines you have to follow, some of which make the profession a lot safer than what it was 40 years ago.”
These rules and regulations, unfortunately, translate into much more paperwork for the Fire Chief.
“Fire service has grown a lot and that is probably one of the reasons why I am ready to give it up,” Sheppard said. “As the chief, I spend several hours a week doing something connected to the fire department. Probably not a day goes by when I don’t have to spend a little bit of time to do something fire related, so it has become a kind of full time job – at least a part time job. You have to spend a lot of hours with it.”
Sheppard is self-employed so this gives him greater flexibility than it would someone who might have a job that required them to be in an office or something.
“I have been lucky to be able to do the duties of the Fire Chief over the last 25 years because I own my own business here in town and I can take off when I need to and handle the problems that arise every day,” he said. “But being Chief is a lot more work than what anyone even begins to realize and I’m just kind of ready to give that part of it up.”
But of all the changes that have taken place, Sheppard said the biggest and best change that has taken place occurred just about the time he became Fire Chief.
“Prior to this, the four fire departments in Greene County did not work together at all – we didn’t help each other out at all. In fact, we didn’t have much to do with each other, partly because of the chiefs that were in charge,” Sheppard said. “Then, myself, Terry Hopkins from Roodhouse, Cory Hudson from Greenfield and Tim Thaxton from Carrollton, we all got together and decided we need to work together.”
The four chiefs started having regular monthly meetings during the winter months.
“Now, we know each other and we depend on each other for mutual aid calls,” Sheppard said. “That was something that didn’t happen 20 years ago and it has been very good for the county.”
One thing that was implemented while Sheppard was Chief was the EMS Service.
“I think we implemented the EMS service around 13 years ago,” Sheppard said. “I know I’ve had my paramedic license for 12 years and I plan to keep that up. We needed something up here after they moved the ambulances out of White Hall, which is why we started it.”
Looking back, Sheppard was asked about some of the big fires he has been a part of while with the White Hall Fire Department.
“The first major fire I remember being a part of downtown was the fire at Rose Auto Parts sometime in the 80s,” he said. “That was a major fire because in addition to losing the auto parts store, we also lost a doctor’s office, dentist office and a beauty shop, all at the same time.”
In all, Sheppard said there have been four major fires in White Hall area that have pretty well taken out most of the downtown area.
“The Grange Block burned I think sometime in the 90s and it was a big two-story building that took up half a block and we lost it,” he said. “Then the old White Hall Hotel, across from where Dollar General used to be, that was a big major fire, and then, of course the last one five or six years ago.”
Sheppard is referring to the fire which started in the building next to what used to be Lyman’s Furniture next to Farmer’s State Bank. The building was being used as storage lockers and apparently someone was living in the building and set the building on fire. The fire spread to the Lyman Building, which was, at that time, an antique store and the building went up like a tinder box. Three-fourths of the block was lost on that fateful day, including two more buildings which eventually had to be razed.
Sheppard was asked if he might possibly stay on as a fire fighter and just give up the chief duties.
“No, I don’t think I can do that,” he said. “I have been a leader for so long that I don’t know that I could go to a fire and not want to direct things. I think it is just time to hang it up and let someone else take it over.”
But while Sheppard is hanging up his bunker gear, he isn’t hanging up his plumbing tools.
“I plan to continue with my heating and plumbing business because I love what I do,” he said. “I want to keep that part of my life going, and, honestly, I will probably do that till I die.”
Sheppard and his wife, Carrie, have three children, Andy, Adam and Ashley and six grandchildren to spoil.