May 13, 2004
Cordele-- Rarely do we hear about a fire chief, unless you live in Cordele, where you have to move as fast as a wildfire to keep up with Chief Eugene Stephens.
"10-4," says Chief Eugene Stephens, checking one of his two radios. "I am bashful, timid and shy," says the Chief, but don't believe him for a second.
And, don't believe he's 97-years-old either. He looks more like 50. "I politic a lot. I do a lot of public service, public relations," says Chief Stephens.
He waves to everyone he sees, crediting his late mother for teaching him the importance of acknowledging people. Fire or no fire, expect to see him just about anywhere a group of people gather, wearing a freshly starched white shirt, cap, and polished black shoes. "I take pride in wearing this uniform," says Chief Stephens, who would make the cover of a best dressed fireman's magazine if one existed.
He expects all the firemen to look as professional as he looks, and they do. Even the fire hydrants look crisp and well kept like the Chief's uniform. He noticed many of the fire plugs needed painting, with some having between 40 and 45 coats of paint on each one. How did he know that? "I helped paint them back in 1943 when we did it yearly until 1980," he remembers.
But they needed more than another coat of paint this time. He wanted all 700 sand blasted, primed and new paint. "The City bought a lot of sand," says Chief Stephens. Each fire hydrant has a coat of white paint on top for easy identification, with red paint on the lower two-thirds.
He takes pride in his department, too, making sure each fireman has adequate equipment and training. The department has an excellent safety record that proves pride does pay. "I've never in 25 years lost a fireman," says Chief Stephens.
They have two infrared viewing devices that can see through smoke if a person is inside or not. They cost $25,000 each. All trucks get tested yearly to make sure they meet pumping specifications. Independent companies check breathing and other equipment.
Chief Stephens has seen fire fighting change over the years. They had no masks to wear, breathing the fire's smoke, and houses were smaller back when he started. A large bell sounded to alert the firemen. Two strikes of the bell meant a fire in district two.
After a quarter century of fire fighting, the Chief looks at each one as a challenge. "No two fires are alike," he says, and he has fought a lot of them.
The beloved Chief has a sense of humor that he has known to display. One year the Watermelon Parade didn't have a band for some reason. The Chief had a practical good solution. Late one Friday afternoon, he asked the city manager, Don Sims, if he could get a pretty girl to ride on his chief's car in the annual Watermelon Parade back in July, 1987.
Chief Stephens got approval, he guesses, because the city manager thought it was too late for him to find one. It wasn't. The next day he had a beautiful young girl riding on his car, right down Cordele's main street. "Every parade should have a pretty girl, says Chief Stephens.
He turned the car's radio up loud so people could hear band music. Chief Stephens has 11 scrap books of memories of the pretty girls in parades and numerous thank-you notes from people that he quickly shows to visitors with pride.
Don't expect him to quit fighting fires, or wearing the chief's uniform that he takes so much pride in, because he plans to stay around until 2013.
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