A stalwart among California first responders officially hung up his firefighting gear Sept. 3; long-time California Fire Department Chief Allen Smith has retired after nearly four decades of service.
Smith first joined the CFD part-time in 1984, quickly being appointed volunteer chief. He'd become the CFD's first full-time fire chief in 1999, a role which he'd continue to serve in until his retirement earlier this month. All told, that makes 37 years of dedicated service for Smith.
The impact Smith has had on California and Moniteau County has not been lost as the decades have ticked by. He served on the original steering committee to bring 911 service to Moniteau County, helped establish the 911 facility, and served on its board of directors for 20 years. He also played a key role in securing fire trucks and equipment for the CFD and getting a new station built as a member of the Fire Fighters Association since 1983.
And it's only fitting for Smith to be honored for his service during the year he was chosen by the California Area Chamber of Commerce as Citizen of the Year. A retirement reception was held in his honor Thursday, with family, friends and many others on hand to wish him well as he starts his next chapter.
Smith described his feelings Thursday as "bittersweet," though some time to marinate after the reception brought some new feelings to the surface.
"I slept on it overnight, and it's really starting to sink in that this is really happening," Smith said Friday morning. "I'm looking forward to it. I even talked to my wife this morning about all the things I'll be able to do nowso I'm really looking forward to the next chapter of life, being able to do more things around the house."
Smith said spending more time with his wife is at the top of the list of his plans for retirement. He said after being responsible for the entire city of California for so long, it's nice to now just be responsible for his home.
Life's going to get a little slower, he said, and there will be less worrying about when a call might come in. When things went bad on a call, Smith said, he was always ultimately responsible, something that "wears on you after a while."
"My responsibility has shrunk tremendously," Smith said. "I think I can handle thatI've got rid of that now, and it's like a huge weight's been lifted off my shoulders. I'm looking forward to enjoying life now.
"I've even made the comment here in the last few days that I might be a lot more fun to be around now."
Smith said Friday he was especially appreciative to his friend and fellow long-time California city official, former mayor Norris Gerhart, for his words at the reception. Gerhart presented Smith with a plaque in appreciation of his 37 years of service.
"I'm really thankful to him for that; it means a lot to me, so I wanted to thank him," Smith said. "I appreciate deeply the words he said about me."
Smith said he's been reflecting on his time spent in the department and every one of his volunteers throughout the years that he's had relationships with, memories he said he'll treasure forever. It's been an "awesome experience," he said, to be able to look back.
As he's reflected, Smith said he's been especially proud to have been able to keep his crews safe during what is often dangerous business.
"My motto was 'We all go home,'" Smith said. "So I am very thankful that over all these years, and all the things that have happened, that I've been able to keep my guys safe. We've been fortunate that way; that's always been my greatest fear, that someone on our team (might) have an incident."
The interim fire chief will be Brad Friedmeyer, Smith said, who's been with the CFD since the early 1990s. Though he said Friday he expects that finding more volunteers will be a challenge as it has been for the past year or so, it's one that he thinks Friedmeyer is up to the task of handling. The heart of the department is the people, Smith said; the work doesn't happen by itself.
Smith said he expects there to be a learning process as Friedmeyer settles into the role, but more experience will help with time. He was especially clear, though, that he thinks Friedmeyer will do a good job leading the department in his stead.
"I hope that they'll continue to improve and make me proud," Smith said. "I'm going to be sitting at home and I'll be hearing sirens going through town, and I'll (be saying) 'Go get 'em, boys.' I'm going to back them 100 percent."
Whether Friedmeyer will continue in the role past an interim basis will be a Board of Aldermen decision, Smith said, so he expects they will continue to work through a formal hiring process in the immediate future. It's a lot different than when Smith first became chief, he said. There was no hiring process then; he just got a phone call one morning telling him he was the fire chief, and that was that.
There have been other changes throughout the years, chief among them the technology. Smith said when he first joined the department, it was using the "fire bar," a party phone line which allowed volunteers to get fire calls. This was before Smith had helped to bring 911 service to the area, so there was no radio or dispatch service network. He said firefighters knew back then if they were responding to a fire since they'd hear a solid ring, rather than the intermittent ring one hears when receiving a standard phone call.
Today, there's an active 911 app available on smartphones that provides a number of ways for firefighters to stay better — and quicker — informed while on a call. Smith said he could even see the locations of everyone responding to a scene via GPS, and the app can give crews the fastest route to get to a call in real-time.
The fire apparatus has changed throughout the years, too, Smith said. Trucks used to be manual transmission but are now mostly automatic, and modern trucks tend to have many more electronic components that make it easier to operate the water pump.
Smith said even the county itself has changed drastically in the years he's served, namely during the period when he and the steering committee were trying to bring 911 service to the area. To implement the service, Smith said all the county roads had to be named — it became quite an ordeal, he said, since a lot of roads simply didn't have names to begin with, save for a homeowner's name.
"It was a big improvement for us back then, because there was no addressing around the county," Smith said. "People take it for granted now but back then, when there was an emergency call outside of the city of California, people would have to give me directions. Go out north on such-and-such highway, take the second gravel road to your left, go past so-and-so's barn, just basic instructions but there was no address."
Smith said, finally, he wanted to pass along to the residents of California that they shouldn't take the work of the city's other departments for granted — when one turns on a faucet or flips a light switch and everything works, or even simply getting trash picked up once per week, it's because of that work. There's a lot that goes into it, he said, and it's "not magic." Changes throughout the years even apply there; Smith said he remembered when trash service wasn't required, so residents would simply burn their trash, leading to many more fires and smoke across town.
The common thread for Smith, though, was his appreciation for his colleagues and friends across the community, whether it be fellow city department supervisors or his former firefighting crews. As much as Smith might be on everyone's minds moving forward, they all will be on his, too.
"I'm always going to have the California Fire Department on my mind," Smith said. "Of course I want to see them continue to do well; it's the best thing for the community."