The City of Huntsville is celebrating the career of hometown hero Fire Chief Tom Grisham, who is retiring on February 28. A retirement celebration will be held from 2 to 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 28, at City Hall, 1212 Avenue M.Grisham, 65, reflected on his long service to the citizens of Huntsville, noting that the past 44 years have been the greatest, most exciting time of his life.
Grisham began working as a volunteer firefighter in August 1974.
“When I was hired on full time on October 1, 1976, I was assigned to the truck,” Grisham said. “There were just two full time firefighters back then.”
Grisham was 23 when he moved to town for the job. He would work during the day and take the truck home at night. But how did Grisham know when there was an emergency? He had a dedicated phone line installed in his home. When an emergency rang on the line, he would jump in the truck and respond.
“No one knew where I was in those days, and most times I was the first one on the scene,” Grisham said. “That was an exciting challenge for a young man like me. My goal in life was to be a mechanic. I am a car enthusiast. But at 20 years old and married right out of high school, I had to have a job.”
It was in his high school years that he did mechanic work with Mr. Cornelius Sea, Grisham recalled with a smile. Mr. Sea was a formative force for Grisham.
“It was during that time of working mechanic jobs in class that I knew I loved tinkering with cars,” Grisham said.
Grisham’s path to public service started because his stepfather had served as a volunteer firefighter for 40 plus years, and his older brother had served 15 years as a volunteer firefighter.
It was their example and footprints in the department that led Grisham to realize his calling.
“I remember being younger, going to conventions and workshops with them,” Grisham said. “I knew Jack King, the Volunteer Fire Chief. He was a big inspiration to me.”
Grisham took a moment to gather himself.
“There was one call that stuck with me – my entire career,” Grisham said. “On February 23, my mentor, former Fire Chief H.B. Toney, was burned in a grass fire in Riverside. Unfortunately, he passed from his injuries on March 14, 1977.”
Grisham said you never get over something like that, but he was grateful for the support of King.
King ran a funeral home by trade, Grisham remembers his assistance in helping him cope with the loss.
Joe French was hired on as Chief after Toney’s passing. Grisham spent 19 years under his leadership, which was successful because the department was able to hire two more firefighters in that time period.
“You know, back then you didn’t make a fortune being a firefighter. My monthly pay was $365. But I got to be out and about in the county. I liked and enjoyed getting out in the field and having to get dirty,” Grisham said. “It was always a challenge. But I was successful. I eventually took Joe’s place, and I enjoyed going to schools and daycares to teach fire safety education.”
Grisham will tell you that when he took over as fire chief, the transition was a struggle. He lost his hands-on role and had to shift to thinking about the stability of his firefighters and so much more.
“I learned to deal with City Hall, which is full of the kindest people,” Grisham said. “I have enjoyed the last 23 years. It has been a pleasure to serve the public, mayors and city councilmembers. I have never been turned down for equipment requests because of the trust I built. At the same time, that is when I realized I really held the position in charge and there were consequences to my decisions. I had to make sure whatever I did worked. I budgeted like it was my personal checkbook. I knew it was the people’s money and I was never going to steer them wrong.”
Grisham says the next few months are going to be hard for him, but he recently purchased 70 acres of land, with plenty of room for his cars.
“I have hot rods and antique cars, and I love drag racing,” Grisham said.
He also has lots of family nearby. He and his wife, Debbie, have four grown children and nine grandchildren to keep them busy.
“I see a lot of baseball in my future with my grandson, livestock shows with my granddaughter, and tee ball with the little ones, too,” Grisham said. “But I am still going to be around, to drink coffee at the fire station and bang on the desk. I am still here to be a mentor, and attend drills, functions, and fundraisers. I hired all but one of the firefighters serving today. I have a vested interest.”
Huntsville Police Chief Kevin Lunsford said Chief Grisham is an institution within the City of Huntsville.
“He is the face of the Huntsville Fire Department,” Lunsford said. “He has dedicated 44 years of his life in service to this community. In addition to battling an untold number of fires and saving countless lives, he has been instrumental in the expansion of HFD, the building of new fire stations, and the lowering of ISO (Insurance Service Office) ratings – simply because he has such a love for this community.addition to all of that, he continues to be such a tremendous leader – one of the most well-respected people I know.will miss Tom’s leadership, but look forward to continuing his legacy of service to the Huntsville and Walker County area.”
“Tom assisted me in becoming the great firefighter that I am today,” said Assistant Fire Chief John Hobbs. “Back in the day, he called me ‘Carrot Top’ because I actually had red hair. And the kids would see me in town after our programs and remember me, because Tom made the fire education program so great.”
Hobbs said that Grisham was instrumental in his development, from picking him up in his El Camino for drills and taking him home after, to making him the great educator that he is.
“When I went from volunteer to paid firefighter, Tom and I were partners. And we stayed partners for a number of years,” Hobbs said. “He had a passion for working on the trucks to make sure they served the community. He was always aware of where he came from too, working his way to the Chief position.”
Hobbs said it was Grisham’s leadership that has garnered lower ISO ratings for the community, which is remarkable for the number of citizens served in Huntsville and Walker County.
“Under his watch, we built two new fire houses and bought new equipment and apparatus to stay current in the industry, and that was through grants we still maintain today,” Hobbs said. “He always had an open-door policy. Because of that desire to help others, he will always be an important part of the fire community.”
Hobbs recalled a wildfire that happened on Highway 980 – Grisham was told to protect a certain area, and he did. Hobbs said Grisham immediately jumped in as nozzleman and saved a barn and home. But Grisham didn’t stop there. Hobbs said the pair moved to Wallace Road where there was a 100-foot wall of fire coming at them. Grisham protected the homes and lives, as Hobbs pumped the water.
“The noteworthy part of that day was when a 737 airplane, full of retardant, flew over and dumped on the site we were fighting,” Hobbs said. “Tom had to dive out of the way, because we didn’t know they were dispatched. That day was a battle, and we won, thanks to Tom.”