Valdosta Daily Times

Features

July 7, 2014

A firefighter faces retirement

VALDOSTA — Being a reporter, I have spoken to John Wisenbaker several times around Valdosta, but June 30, was Wisenbaker’s last media outing as fire marshal for the Valdosta Fire Department because, a day later, he would be retired.

“I was the fire marshal for about seven to eight years, and the best part about it was interacting with the public and the other city officials,” Wisenbaker said.

Wisenbaker served the community for 41 years in the VFD, and it took him 33 years to work his way to the fire marshal position.

“I started out at the fire department as a firefighter like everybody else, then I became a truck driver, then I became a company officer in charge of one of the trucks,” Wisenbaker said. “Everybody wants to rise anyway that they can. I was fortunate enough to become a battalion chief to be in charge of one of the shifts, and I had maybe a 10-year run at that. I view myself as a problem solver, and the chief at that time, Chief (J.D.) Rice said, ‘I want to put you in the fire marshal position because you have the people skills to head off a lot of arguments,’ so that’s how I got the position as fire marshal.”

One of the best benefits of being the fire marshal, Wisenbaker said, was that he got to interact with the community and community leaders.

“Because of that job, I know most of the city employees, and I am good friends with them, as well. As the battalion chief, I never got to meet those guys. So as fire marshal, I tried to introduce the firefighters to as many city leaders as I could,” Wisenbaker said. “The fire department is a whole city thing. I felt like I was a part of the city team.”

Continuing, Wisenbaker said, “I just like meeting people and getting to talk to them, so that was my reward.”

Reminiscing about past firefighting events, Wisenbaker recalled ones from 1973, 1978 or ‘79, a Goodyear fire, an apartment fire, and the recent Permafix fire.

“When I started here, back in 1973, one of our fire trucks was involved in an accident with a train. It destroyed the truck, and I had just started. I had been here for a month. That was pretty stunning,” Wisenbaker said. “Another fire that was stunning to me was a big fire at Valdosta High back in ‘78 or ‘79, and that was memorable. Then there was a large Goodyear fire, across from our old station. That was a terrible fire, and we weren’t very successful. I tell people that I was assigned to work the roof sector, and that sounds bad, but it was one foot off of the ground because it had collapsed.”

The first fire that Wisenbaker was called to as a company officer was an apartment fire where the VFD lost eight apartments because the fire went into the attic.

“We had an apartment fire and the outcome was not good. We lost eight apartments, and that was the first time that I was in charge of a truck,” Wisenbaker said. “I was devastated. It was a fire that we couldn’t get to, that got into the attic … There were eight apartments that were destroyed, all of them were lived in, and thankfully no one was injured.”

Wisenbaker spoke to his lieutenant in charge after that fire and said, “’What good are we? We can’t even save a building like that. I don’t think I am the kind of guy that needs to be put in charge of a truck like that.’ and he asked, ‘Why would you say something like that? Do you think that was your fault?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely. Most of what happened out there was my fault.’ And he asked, ‘Do you think that you were the only one who made a mistake out there?’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Yeah, I do.’”

His lieutenant listed all of the mistakes that he himself made, then he listed all of the mistakes that the chief made, then he told Wisenbaker, “I’m not going to ask them to take you off of that because I see something that I like in you. The rest of the guys are in there cutting up, and you’re in here deeply concerned about the department, and that our outcome wasn’t good.”

Taking his lieutenant’s advice to heart, Wisenbaker said, “What I’ve always done is I self-evaluate after every fire. I’ll evaluate it and try to figure out a better solution, or an improvement. I am my own worst critic.”

Wisenbaker’s most recent memorable fire was the 2013 Permafix fire in the industrial park. Although he was not involved in the firefighting, he was on the administrative side.

“I was up close to the guys going in, and I was proud to be a member of that group,” Wisenbaker said.

Now in retirement, I asked Wisenbaker, “What’s next?” And he said, “Actually, I’ve got no real plan, but I’m not the kind of person who is just going to sit there and do nothing … I always like to help people, so I imagine that I’ll gravitate toward something like that. Because it’s pretty rewarding when you help save these people’s belongings.”

He mentioned wanting to organize a group for current and retired Valdosta firefighters to get together and catch up.

“It seems that now we only get together at funerals and I want to change that,” Wisenbaker said.

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