By Curt Yeomans
Eddie Buckholts remembers leaving one of the fire stations in Forest Park at 7 a.m., on a snowy winter day in March 1993, and not seeing the station again until sometime after 9 p.m. that night.
He also recalls a snowy night in October, the same year, when four fire departments were called to help put out a fire at a 16-unit, housing complex in Forest Park, where one person died.
He was haunted by the absence of airplanes flying over the city on Sept. 11, 2001, and feeling like he'd lost a family member when the Twin Towers went down in New York, taking the lives of 343 members of the New York Fire Department in the process.
These are some of the memories Buckholts has collected in his 30-year career of fighting fires. He has been the chief of the Forest Park Fire Department since 2004. He was in an acting role two years before.
Buckholts has been named the Tommy Morgan Fire Chief of the Year. The award was given on Sept. 18, by the Georgia Association of Fire Chiefs at its annual joint convention with the Georgia State Firefighters Association in Savannah.
"It's an honor to receive this recognition, particularly because it's named after [Retired Rockdale County Fire Chief] Tommy Morgan, who's sort of an icon among Georgia firefighters," Buckholts said.
"A lot of the fire laws that are currently on the books are the result of his efforts, and the efforts of other fire chiefs like him, who worked with state legislators to create those laws," said Buckholts of Morgan.
Buckholts got firefighting in his blood when he was five years old. His father, John Buckholts, was a firefighter in Lowndes County and helped start the county's volunteer fire department in 1962.
Lowndes' first station wasn't the traditional fire station. There was no pole. The fire station was the garage of a home belonging to Pauline Copeland, Buckholts' grandmother. The fire engine was kept there between fires.
"I just remember being really interested in fighting fires, and I've been that way ever since," Buckholts said. "The best part about being a firefighter is the camaraderie that exists. The brotherhood, and also the variety of things you get to respond to. You can get called out to anything, from a skinned knee to suspected terrorist activities."
Buckholts became a volunteer firefighter in Stockbridge in 1977, and worked his way up the ranks until he became that department's chief in 1985. He held the position until 1990. He came to Forest Park a year later as a firefighter. He became a station lieutenant in 1993, and captain of the fire team in 1996. He was promoted to deputy fire chief in 2000, and took over as acting fire chief in November, 2002.
The word "acting" was removed from his title in March, 2004. He currently oversees 50 firefighters, two engine units, one ladder unit, and three advanced cardiac life support units.
One of the things he tries to do as fire chief is show respect to his firefighters. "I try to treat people as I would want to be treated if I were in their shoes," he said. "As chief, you're not always the most popular person, but showing respect is the key to being a good fire chief."
Buckholts is also in his third year as president of the Georgia Mutual Aid Group, which mobilizes firefighters from across the state to help out with emergency situations. In the past, Buckholts led efforts to help out after Hurricane Katrina, by gathering 300 firefighters and taking them to St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana, and the area around Waveland, Miss.
He also helped gather over 800 firefighters, from 95 departments across the state, to help control wildfires, which consumed over 400,000 acres of land in south Georgia earlier this year.
"Eddie has provided a lot of leadership and dedication to the fire fighting service," said Forest Park City Manager John Parker. "He's done an exemplary job leading and providing direction for our fire department. We're all proud of what he's done and what he's accomplished."