Tennant of safety

Published 1:16 pm Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A radio is clipped to Geoff Tennants belt where it sits permanently on his left hip, blaring occasionally a succession of long beeps and brief chatter the tones of trouble. Somewhere.

But it is peaceful at the Columbus Fire Department where Tennant has served as a firefighter for 35 years and as fire chief since 1982. No alarms sound and nothing at all hints at Tennants impending departure.

After nearly 30 years of service as chief, Tennant is set to retire or at least his version of it at the end of 2010, giving way to Bobby Arledge, who was selected as new chief Monday night (see front page story).

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As for going home and sitting and sitting on my front porch in a rocking chair no, thats not me, said Tennant, 71, a retired educator of 30 years who is also the chairman of the Polk County Board of Education. I guess, when I go to the golf course after Jan. 1, I wont be taking a pager on the course with me. Ill just go to play golf.

There are some things Id like to do, I just dont know what they are yet.”

Tennant has about six months to figure those things out, but he said even after that he will still be involved in some capacity with the department.

While he has been at the helm, the Columbus Fire Department has grown with the community and has&bsp; built and occupied a new firehouse.

Tennant joined the department in the mid-1970s. Then, the department consisted of a small all-volunteer force and a couple of home-crafted fire trucks. Today, the department has one paid firefighter and 28 active volunteers in addition to junior members and several associate members who also belong to neighboring departments.

At some point in life, you have to look for ways to give back to the community in which you live, he said. At the same time, thats the point of the department giving back to people in need. Every once in a while, you have the ability to understand that the people who work here are able to make a difference in the lives of the people they serve.

But Tennant was never supposed to be here as an educator or as a fire chief. As a youngster, Tennants aptitude was tested at the behest of his mother to determine his best professional route. The tests said that he was best suited for the business world.

Tennant disagreed vehemently, choosing instead to teach and then to be on the front lines when the community needed him instead of chasing profit margins.

I wanted to be in an occupation where I could work with people. Its always been important to me to give back to the community that Ive lived in, he said. Thats one of the reasons I became an educator and why Im still involved in education. Its a way to stay connected to the totality of Polk County and to help it improve as a whole. I believe were here to enrich one anothers lives. Its easy to lose track of yourself and never find out how other people enrich your life, and I guess thats why Ive done what Ive done. The good times have outweighed the bad, and Ive enjoyed it. It may sound like altruistic pap but its just part of who I am.

In Tennants eyes, handling the emergency calls and putting out fires is only part of the job of his department.

We see people on the worst days of their lives and if you can provide some bit of comfort through that service, then youre doing your job.

Tennant easily recalls some of his most harrowing and proudest days as chief when his small department stood up to its biggest challenges: a natural gas leak at Silver Creek Road that caused a large evacuation and put his firefighters in considerable danger and a chemical spill in December of 1998 that left Tennant at odds with state bureaucrats.

The cleanup and safety operation surrounding a chemical spill after a tanker overturned on I-26 lasted more than three days.

I was under a great deal of pressure from the state to hurry things along, but I refused to allow that, Tennant said. Its something that had to be done the right way.

Tryon Fire Chief Joey Davis, a former county fire marshal and associate member of the Columbus Fire Department, said thats the way Tennant has always worked.

He has that ungodly stretch of I-26 to deal with, said Davis. Unfortunately, Geoff is right in the middle of it. He hears it from the Highway Patrol. I think then there was pressure coming from the secretary of state to reopen the road, but Geoff said, when we get the cleanup done and when its safe, well open it. With Geoff there are no compromises.

Davis calls Tennants pending departure from the chiefs position surreal.

Its bittersweet for me and I think its kind of surreal for a lot of people, Davis said. Geoff has been the one constant for fire service in this county for three decades.

They still do department elections annually in Columbus and for 28 years now, hes never had anybody run against him, Davis said. That says a lot about the man and the respect he has from his people, especially in a position thats volunteer. In positions like that, theres always volatility, always changeover, always someone who thinks they can do it differently or do it better. But Geoff Tennant has never had to succumb to that.

Kim Pack, a former high school student and golfer who was taught and coached by Tennant, was also among the first female firefighters at Columbus, joining the department after her application had first been turned down by an all-male Tryon department.

He was more of a father figure than a chief, really, said Pack, now a Polk County Sheriffs Deputy. He fathered all of us in some ways.

In the fire service, Chief has always treated me as an equal and in a county that didnt have a lot of female firefighters in it back in the early 2000s, I think that says a lot. He has always gone out of his way to make sure everyone was treated the same, whether in training or on a fire scene.

Tennant admitted that he can sometimes come off a little curmudgeonly and he slyly relishes that role but he also admitted fatherly concern about the people who refer to him simply as Chief.

I dont tell the members of the department very often, but every time we go out into the field, Im worried about them. I tell them our first mission is to make sure we all go home. Were all adults here, except for the junior (members), but theyre all my responsibility and thats the way I see it.

But Pack, a die-hard Clemson fan, also enjoys good-natured ribbing with Tennant, a North Carolina graduate, occasionally decorating his vehicle with orange tiger paws and the like.

I cant think of a better person to have had for an educator, a coach, a fire chief and, more importantly, a true friend, she said. If I could just convince him to pull for Clemson over UNC.

Tennant, who was named Fire Chief of the Year by the Western North Carolina Firefighters Association in 2007, will begin training his successor, a training that will last until Tennant officially leaves the office at the end of the year.

Ive never regarded this as a job, Tennant said. Its always been kind of a calling.

I hope Ive helped in some shape or fashion to shape what the department does in the future. Its been an interesting run with this department. Itll be interesting to see how it goes.