This week’s hometown public servant is Swainsboro Fire Department Chief Mike Strobridge. At the young age of 16-years-old, Chief Strobridge began his career with the Swainsboro Fire Department as a tailboard guy. His primary job, at that time, was hooking the fire hose up. Although times have changed since then, it wasn’t unusual for youth to hold positions such as Strobridge did due to adults and parents working other jobs, leaving vacancies that needed to be filled in certain positions during the day. Apart from that, Strobridge was fortunate to have a mother who pushed him to occupy his time in a positive working environment versus running the streets when not in school.
“At that time, my dad was deceased, and my mom spent her days working. So, I spent my summer days at the local fire station working as a firefighter,” Strobridge said.
Strobridge held down his position and stayed loyal to his duties as a firefighter for the City of Swainsboro until moving to Atlanta. Upon returning home, he was contacted by Swainsboro’s second fire chief, Jake Wilkerson, who offered Strobridge a full-time job position with the Swainsboro Fire Department. Strobridge accepted the job offer, and eventually, began to have interest in the medical services of public works as well.
Pursuing this new interest while also remaining loyal to his duties with the fire department, Strobridge entered work with Emanuel Medical Services, where he worked an ambulance while fighting local fires with his second job. This carried on for approximately 25 years.
According to Strobridge, both jobs required staff to work 24-hour shifts, and it wasn’t unusual for him to work a complete 24-hour shift at one job, then turn around and hit the clock at his other job.
“Both jobs were very rewarding. Basically, I wanted to serve the citizens of Emanuel County, and I really enjoyed the EMS side, but, there again, I was moving up in ranks at the fire department, and a lot of my time was occupied with new responsibilities after taking on the position of training officer with the fire department. Having to deal with more fires, I finally had to make a decision on my profession, knowing that I couldn’t continue to do both. So, I continued working through the ranks at the fire department,” Strobridge explained.
From tailboard guy, to training officer, to shift commander, to lieutenant, to captain, to assistant chief, to his current position as chief of Swainsboro Fire Department, Strobridge has seen many changes within the city and county regarding fire department operations.
For instance, when beginning his career as a firefighter, the first station was housed in the rear portion of a building located at Swainsboro’s current Boneyard setting. Just up the street from Swainsboro’s first fire department was Swainsboro’s first police station, which occupied the corner across the street from where current-day Swainsboro City Hall sits on one of the corners of Swainsboro’s Crossroads. During a recent interview with Strobridge, he outlined more details on changes seen in the public works department. For example, how the agencies ran.
You see, back then, there was a phone booth at the downtown square that served as the police hotline. With police officers working outside the office, an officer would, more times than not, be located within the proximity of the phone booth, waiting for a phone call to respond to emergencies within the city. In addition to the police phone, there was also a red phone located at the corner of the current boneyard that would continuously ring until answered by fire department staff, ready to respond to local emergencies. Also utilized as a call for fire personnel response was the alert siren that is still utilized for testing purposes, honorary sounding for deceased fire firefighters, and an emergency signal when tornadoes touch ground. However, its purposes to the city were different then than now.
According to Strobridge, the siren was once utilized to indicate where firefighters needed to respond to. If two siren blows were heard, firefighters would respond to the area where the present-day headquarters occupies the city of Swainsboro. If four blows were heard, firefighters would respond to the side of town where Walmart presently resides. Six blows would direct fire personnel to the area of present-day East Georgia State College, and eight blows would direct firefighters to the north portion of Swainsboro.
Serving as the siren’s home was one of Swainsboro’s primary courthouses, until it was demolished by fiery flames. Upon the courthouse burning down, the siren had to be taken down and moved, but, before it could be relocated, the siren went missing.
In pursuit of the ever-so-faithful siren, Strobridge began to inquire on the whereabouts of the device, which was eventually found in the care of Danny Wayne Faircloth. After locating the antique alarm system, Strobridge had the small piece of Swainsboro history rewired, fixed and installed at the water tower located near South Coleman Street, near Swainsboro’s second fire station at East Moring Street and South Coleman Street.
“Kudos to Millcreek Foundation. The siren was their baby. Jimmy Morgan provided the money for the siren to be rewired and reinstalled under one stipulation – the whistle of the alarm had to be blown to start every Pine Tree Festival Parade,” Strobridge recalled.
During the 1980s, Swainsboro’s third fire station was introduced to the city and still remains standing at the corner of Electric Drive and Meadowlake Parkway. Having the new station occupy the corner setting, Strobridge desired for the location to also serve as a host spot for an administration office. The fire department eventually obtained this goal through contact with landowners of connected land, Roper.
In their request to house the administration office on property behind the Meadowlake Parkway fire station, contact was made with business owners of Roper, who agreed to lease the land to house the desired services under the condition that property taxes be waived and a lease payment of $1 be paid for property use.
After three established stations came to life within the city of Swainsboro and were ran by three chiefs within the same time frame, Paul Bell, Swainsboro’s first fire chief; Jake Wilkerson, second chief; and Jerry Odum, Swainsboro’s third fire chief; Strobridge became Swainsboro’s fourth fire chief 18 years ago. Upon taking on this new role, Strobridge wished to see continued success for the local fire department. He set and obtained goals that not only assisted local citizens, but those who reside in surrounding areas as well.
“My first goal was to obtain a better ISO rating. What most individuals do not know about the importance of an ISO rating is that the better we are, the cheaper insurance coverage is for local residents,” Strobridge explained.
ISO ratings are administered every five years during a very lengthy audit process, where individuals with ISO check every performance, documentation and much more during an audit visit and can normally take up to six months before completion.
“Every five years, we are put under microscope, and if we are missing or not reaching accomplishments, then we are going to get gigged for it – which affects the entire community,” he further explained.
Quick fact: Did you know that Swainsboro Fire Department has a remarkable ISO ranking of an E3? Yes – so next time you see Chief Strobridge, be sure to thank him and his staff for the lower insurance rates received than those residing in other areas who have not obtained such scores as Swainsboro has since successfully reaching one of Strobridge’s primary goals.
After the completion of his first goal, Strobridge noticed another need for the local community and surrounding areas – the need for a hazardous materials team.
“There is a company in Twin City that manufactures different types of chemicals. Unfortunately, one of its employees didn’t, possibly, follow all the safety requirements and collapsed in the building due to chemicals. Well, emergency personnel responded and got the employee into an ambulance, where, later, the two EMTs became ill from chemical exposure. We had to evacuate and wait for an Augusta response team, and that’s when I thought to myself, ‘No, we can do better,’” Strobridge explained.
Wanting to bring “better” to the community, Strobridge began inquiring on the process of bringing a HAZMAT team to Emanuel County and successfully did so, with all funding provided through grants. To be noted: Because of this achievement, Swainsboro Fire Department is recognized by Homeland Security.
Having achieved his goal of obtaining a HAZMAT team, Strobridge then began working toward his next goal – a training facility.
“In the 70s and 80s, training was usually performed on old abandoned property, given request and consent coming from the property owner. However, as times change, so do protocols. With new guidelines and regulations in place to prevent training as performed in the 70s and 80s, a proper training facility was needed to ensure all fire personnel were educated with experience,” he explained.
Once again, Strobridge pursued and achieved this goal through grant funding. The training facility, located behind the Meadowlake Parkway fire house, is utilized by not only local firefighters of Emanuel County, but also by many counties throughout the state of Georgia.
After accomplishing this goal, he began to ponder other ways to bring “better” to the county, which resulted in goal number four - an education house.
Recognizing the need to spread fire safety education throughout the community, Strobridge began exploring purchasing an educational house. This led to receiving state funding and obtaining an educational house, which can travel and be used at local schools and businesses to demonstrate what to do in the event of a fire emergency, as well as illustrate fire safety tips and prevention.
Being state-funded, the house is also utilized by different organizations in and out of the county within the state of Georgia.
With such progress made and growth continuously occurring within the county, Strobridge’s fifth goal was to meet the demands related to the county’s lifestyle.
“As things started to grow, the next goal was, ‘We need a ladder truck.’ At the time, the best that we could do safely was 35 feet and that was using a ground ladder. Because East Georgia was growing and with two-story buildings becoming more common, ISO would have more reason to question the response capability when responding to fires in larger structures,” he further explained.
Facing the odds, Strobridge approached Swainsboro mayor and council in request of a ladder truck. While in Missouri looking at the truck, he was informed by Swainsboro City Mayor Charles Schwabe to bring the truck home, resulting in his fifth goal being completed.
Having brought Swainsboro’s first ladder truck back home, Strobridge took on yet another goal – to incorporate a response team within the Swainsboro Fire Department.
“I wanted to be able to totally function and take the community to a higher level. The fire department is probably the only emergency service with missions changing. Having had a background in EMS and knowing the local response time for an ambulance to respond to a scene, why not train our firefighters to become first responders?”
With EMS Director Courtney Terwilliger having access to needed grants, and Chief Strobridge having the personnel, the odds of this goal becoming a reality were good for the community. Now, Swainsboro Fire Department has a full rescue team built in.
“Here’s the whole nine yards: every Swainsboro firefighter is not just state-certified, they are nationally registered – meaning they can go to New York and get a job if needed. That is a heck of an accomplishment for a small community, but it comes with a price,” Strobridge said. “My staff has to train 212 hours a year to maintain their certifications. See, the idea of ‘the only thing we do is lay around and watch T.V. and this and that’ is untrue – that’s not the case. Every single opening morning, every engine and every piece of equipment has to be checked off and documented for future audits, every single day. It doesn’t matter if it’s the weekend or Christmas day, it has to be done 365 days a year on top of training and testing and responding to emergencies on a daily basis. So, believe it or not – the least thing we do is fight fires. We multitask now with so many different things that all requires training. Failure to train, trains to fail.”
Also to be noted: Swainsboro Fire Department has six certified training officers on staff.
In addition to the 212 hours of mandatory training to maintain national certification, 16 hours of driver’s training is required for all personnel, and each individual must obtain and maintain a class F driver’s license. And, personnel are required to do an hour of cardio training daily.
“Everything we do is physical. When we put on our gear, we’re carrying about an extra 50 lbs. of weight. It’s important that training in health is maintained, just as response training is maintained,” Strobridge said.
Having obtained goal number six, Strobridge began working on goal number seven – the new and current Swainsboro Fire Department Headquarters.
At the time of building a new home for the fire department, Swainsboro mayor and council were considering building a public safety building to house fire and law enforcement personnel together. With Swainsboro Fire Department’s previous Chief Odom being in favor of this new building, Strobridge, who was now the appointed fire chief, took a gamble and backed out of the deal.
“Here’s the thing. The police department was in dire need of a new building. So, using the city’s first round of SPLOST funding, I opted that the police department receive the funds for a new building in hopes that, if a second round of SPLOST funding occurred, we, the fire department, could then build a building suitable for our needs. So, I took the risk and the second SPLOST passed. I had to give a lot in hopes that citizens passed a second SPLOST, in which it did,” he humbly commented.
In regard to succeeding goals set in place, it’s obvious that Strobridge is determined to bring “better” to the county and surrounding areas and has no intention of slowing down. In addition to achieving his many goals, he has ensured every Swainsboro firefighter has proper equipment of their own, suited to fit each individual, and founded a support firefighter class. In the support firefighter class, which has appealed to females and retired gentlemen, individuals sign up to learn the basics of driving and operating a fire truck (or fire apparatus, as these trucks are correctly known as) to assist response times within rural areas such as ours.
Having obtained so much success for a small-town community fire department, we can only imagine what Chief Strobridge has planned next.