40-year-firefighter retires from service

Published 5:46 pm Saturday, February 14, 2009

After more than 40 years of getting up at 5 a.m. for work, Battalion Chief Tom Nichols finally gets to sleep in.

“I’m just not working no more,” he said. “It’s great to feel that way.”

Nichols began his firefighting career in June 1968 with the Nansemond County Fire Department. That spring, he was working for the Virginia Department of Highways (now VDOT), doing soil surveys for the U.S. Route 58 bypass. He and a friend went to a now-closed barbecue restaurant in Suffolk for lunch, and started talking with a firefighter who was in the restaurant.

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“I heard a firefighter talking about how he worked 24 hours on and 24 hours off,” Nichols said. “I said, ‘I’d like to do that.’”

The very next morning, Nichols received a phone call from the chief of the Nansemond County Fire Department. He started work at the fire department on June 1, 1968, and hasn’t looked back since.

“I never, not for one minute, hated my job,” he said. “You were out there helping somebody, and that is the best feeling in the world.”

Back then, firefighters did not go on medical calls, and were called only to fight fires. As a result, Nichols was on the job at the Pitchkettle Road station a full 12 days before he went on his first call.

“They told me to get on the tailboard,” Nichols said, reminiscing about the brush fire that day. However, nobody showed him how to hold on, and he barely made it to the fire.

“When the engineer hit the railroad tracks, I thought I was coming off the truck,” he said.

Suffolk’s industrial sector was a primary source of structure fires back in the 1960s and ‘70s, Nichols recalled. His very first structure fire call was to a peanut warehouse where someone had put copper pennies into a fuse box.

Nowadays, potential firefighters go through months of training to be able to join the fire department, but it was not so for Nichols. All his training was on the job, he said.

At one structure fire early in his career, he was searching a burned house for victims when he opened a closet and saw a doll – only he thought it was a human baby.

“It scared me to death,” Nichols laughed.

The job had many bad experiences. Finding a dead victim and smelling “that smell” and knowing there was a burn victim inside are things he’ll never forget.

But there were plenty of good things, too. He met his wife through firefighting, because she was a dispatcher. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1973, to captain in 1986, and to battalion chief in 1997. He joined the Suffolk Fire Department when the merger happened in 1974. He worked under four fire chiefs, including the current one, Mark Outlaw, who credits Nichols with his own role in the fire service.

“We met when I was about 14 years old,” Outlaw said. “He was instrumental in starting my career.”

Outlaw said Nichols will be remembered for his love of teaching new firefighters and for his knowledge of the history of the department.

“He is an asset that will be difficult to replace,” Outlaw said.

Nichols said the fire service has changed drastically since he started. He remembers fighting structure fires totally alone – something that would be unheard of in today’s fire departments. His pay was $169 a month when he started, with no holiday pay, and “if you called in sick, you better be dead,” he said. Firefighters never went on medical calls, and safety equipment has gotten better and more plentiful over the years, he said.

“Oh, it’s changed a lot.”

The primary goals, however, have not changed – to save lives, prevent fires and protect property, he said.

Nichols will miss the fire department, he said. He still keeps a radio scanner on day and night at home, and he still visits Station 5 on Bridge Road for lunch.

“It’s just a job you won’t ever forget.”