Feature Fire Chief Edward Reinhardt reflects on 40 years of service | The Cullman Tribune

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Fire Chief Edward Reinhardt reflects on 40 years of service

Retirement celebration and ribbon cutting for new station today

Cullman Fire Rescue Chief Edward Reinhardt stayed long enough to see the completion of Fire Station 3 off Alabama Highway 157 and see his administration moved into new offices there. He is retiring after 40 years. A retirement celebration and ribbon cutting for the new station will take place today, Thursday, April 19, beginning at 11 a.m. The new station is located at 1920 Butler Street NW. (W.C. Mann for The Tribune)

CULLMAN - At the end of this month, Cullman Fire Rescue (CFR) Chief Edward Reinhardt will retire after 40 years of service.  The Tribune caught up with him in the department’s new headquarters at the newly-completed Fire Station 3 on Cullman’s north side to talk about his career and the growth of Cullman’s emergency services.

Reinhardt was born and raised in the area, a third generation Cullmanite whose grandparents were among the original immigrant families who came from Germany to settle Cullman.  He attended the now consolidated Kelley School and graduated from Vinemont. His wife-to-be Patricia was an elementary school classmate, and the two continued together through school and beyond, having been married for 47 years now.

Reinhardt studied refrigeration and air conditioning, along with radio and television repair, at Wallace State, and received a master’s certification in appliance repair from Frigidaire and Whirlpool.  He worked in that field for seven years, until a drive to serve his community led him to join the Cullman Fire Department on April 26, 1978. After joining the department, he returned to school to earn an associate degree in fire science.

Reinhardt became a captain in 2004, deputy chief in 2007 and was named chief in 2009.

What led you to the fire service?

“I thought when disaster strikes, or when people’s in bad need, I want to be where I can do the most and help people.  Well, my thoughts of the fire department were a little different from what it was when I first started here. It was just totally a fire department, but we did respond to some other calls, too, but that was basically the focus.

“I wanted to advance more to where we could help people in other ways, any time they needed help in any way, form, or fashion, so that’s kind of what drew me to the fire service.”

What has changed in the fire service over the years?

“When I first started, like I said, we were a fire department.  I mean, we responded to fires, mostly. Now, we did respond to some vehicle accidents, stuff like that, once in a while, but it’s pretty rare.  It was just on an absolute have-to case.

“So we changed from that on up to other stuff, which has become more of an all-hazard response now, which I call it.

“Back then, most of the training was on-the-job training.  Some of the bigger departments--Birmingham, Huntsville--had their own training facilities and stuff, but you didn’t have a statewide thing; so it was just coming into effect when I come to work.  A few guys hired right before me went to the first recruit schools.

“So they started trying to meet a state standard and an MPA standard along about that time, which changed a lot from the way we did fight fires.

“Back then, we didn’t have SCBAs--contained breathing apparatuses that we used, so it was mostly exterior.  You did go in some, but you’d eat a lot of smoke.”

Reinhardt talked about the on-the-job training new recruits received from veteran firefighters, as well as technological advancements like thermal imaging cameras that allowed firefighters to locate people in smoke-filled buildings without having to blindly feel around for them, better ventilation systems, the use of firefighting foams, larger diameter hoses, and other developments.

Is there anything from the “old days” you’d like to see preserved or revived?

“Well, there’s something to be said about the people that was smoke-eaters back then.  If you get in a situation where all your electronics fail, or you have to depend on it, and you’ve had some of that experience in the past, you have a better chance of surviving.  Which they are starting to bring back and teach in some classes now, on how to survive without all that stuff. So I think that’s good, I think that’s some of the past being brought to the present to help in case of that situation.

“The experience of how fire behaves is something that you learn, you get taught in school.  But still you have to know and be able to read it, and know how it works, and where the fire is going to be in the next five minutes, ten minutes, if we don’t do anything or if we do this, where is it going.  So there’s a lot of old school things that worked, that are coming back.”

What will be your fondest memories of the job?

“They’re all fond memories, I guess you’d say.  Now, there’s tough times, but each day’s a challenge, a new challenge, different challenge.  So I think it depends on how you look at it.

“Probably one of the fondest was, if I had to sum it up in one big word, would going from a fire department response to an all-hazard response department that covers a lot of things.  And that’s probably the best memory I’ve got, as far as the department. I mean, we went from--like I said--just a fire department to an all-hazard response.

“We made some progress before my time (as chief).  But basically, we went ALS as I’ve been chief--which is Advanced Life Support, which we do everything the ambulance service does, short of transport.”

The advances of CFR under Reinhardt’s roughly 11-year tenure as deputy chief and chief have been numerous, including, but not limited to:

  • assignment of tactical medics to the Cullman Police Department’s tactical response unit, to provide on-the-spot triage and treatment potential during police emergencies
  • application and receipt of grants to fund additional air packs, air compressors, HAZMAT decontamination equipment, “Freddy” the fire truck for kids, and aerial ladder/pump vehicle, and the first two years’ pay for 12 additional firefighters when CFR expanded to three stations
  • 16 new vehicles and trailers including engine trucks, ladder trucks, rescue trucks, SUVs, ATVs, HAZMAT truck and trailer, decontamination trailer, technical rescue trailer and rope rescue trailer
  • new equipment including radiological monitors, radio systems, rescue tools, onboard vehicle computers, air and life monitors, traffic preemption systems, turnout gear and gear cleaning equipment, and live video capability that allows training classes at headquarters to be transmitted to all stations, letting firefighters attend class without leaving their posts understaffed
  • new personnel positions including division chiefs for operations and EMS, advanced medics and EMS, tactical medics, HAZMAT team, technical rescue team, fire inspector and lieutenants
  • Fire Station 3 and the new CFR administrative office just off Alabama Highway 157 on Cullman’s north side

What was the hardest moment of the job?

“I guess probably the one I really remember is April 27, 2011, was the tornadoes: realizing how much damage we had, and possibly injuries, the ambulance service being hit, knowing we didn’t have enough people to cover all the area we needed to cover and search and rescue, and trying to get the people in a timely manner was kind of a big moment for me at that time, not knowing what the results were going to be.”

Reinhardt got up around 5 a.m. on April 27, the day of the storm.  His next moment of rest would be a two- or three-hour nap he caught late in the evening of the following day, April 28.  

“For probably two weeks, maybe three there, it was very little sleep,” said Reinhardt, “maybe a couple of hours here and there that myself, (Cullman Police) Chief (Kenny) Culpepper, and even department heads got very little during that timeframe.  It was a learning process.

“Of course, when the tornadoes hit, and the technical rescue teams was here, they had to pull out to go other places and stuff.  We now have a medium rescue team, HAZMAT team, HAZMAT trailer, technical rescue trailer, stuff like that that we didn’t have. That’s one reason we went ALS, too: the ambulance service got hit, so they were maxed out, especially with the whole county, you know.  So having our people trained to that level was, I think, a plus in a time of need like that, and it’s made a huge difference. So that’s some of the stuff I’m really proud of.”

Reinhardt also credited the Rock the South event following the storm with providing Cullman with great long-term benefits by bringing together multiple agencies and creating or strengthening lines of inter-agency communication, so that responses to problems since that time could be better coordinated.

When the next generation of CFR leaders talk to their new recruits about the history of the department, what would you like them to say about you?

“Well, I’ve told them: I’ve said the one thing I learned is don’t quit learning.  And I think even now, even as chief, I don’t have all the answers still. I still learn; it’s a learning process all the time.  I think if you ever stop learning, that works against you very much so.

“So I think, continue to learn as much as you can.  Learn from others’ mistakes early on in your career.  Try not to make the same mistakes . . . If you can learn that early on in your career, I think that’s a huge plus for anybody.”

Next?

If Reinhardt has big plans for the future, he’s playing those cards close to the vest.  

“For a little while I’m just going to relax, take it easy, and see where it leads me.  There’s things I’ve put off for years and that I’ve not done, that I want to do, and just take my time and do them if I want to do them.  If I don’t want to do them, I don’t. I’ve just never had that opportunity of just kind of being relaxed and just enjoying it, so I want to do that for a little while.  I’m going to try it, anyway! I may get bored, but I’m going to try it.”

The final word

“I can’t say enough about the support from the mayor and the council, my family who has supported me tremendously and put up with me--the long hours and stuff; I know it’s been hard; the members of the department--we went through a lot of changes: their patience, their support, them working with it; my staff and other agencies working as a team has got us where we are today.  I couldn’t do that by myself.

“First off, I give most of the praise to God for that, because I think He put me here for a reason, and I couldn’t have done it without Him and all these other people that supported us.  So I just want to thank everybody for that. And I think He’s got a bigger plan in place that He’s going to move on with from here.”

On May 1, Division Chief Brian Bradberry will take over as chief of Cullman Fire Rescue.

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