Friday, August 3, 2012
After 26 years as a member of the Georgetown City Fire Department, Bill Johnson — the department’s assistant chief, also known as “the voice of Georgetown” — has retired.
It was news that has been difficult to talk about by Chief Joey Tanner because the two have worked together during Johnson’s entire time at the department.
“He started as a firefighter. We were on the same shift. I started in 1984 and he started in 1986,” Tanner said. “There was hardly a day that went by that we did not talk either face to face or by phone.”
Johnson’s firefighting career began as he was working at a radio station in Manning as both a DJ and news reporter. That is how he caught the attention of Clarendon County Fire Chief Carter Jones.
At a party honoring Johnson Monday night, Jones recalled he would see Johnson at nearly every fire his department covered.
“He was always on the scene taking notes for the radio station,” Jones said, adding he gave Johnson a call and asked if he wanted to join his department.
“I am very grateful God allowed our paths to cross,” Jones said.
Johnson later moved to Georgetown where he was once again working in radio.
Tanner — whose father Kerry Tanner was the Johnsonville fire chief — knew of Johnson but had not met him until he was in Georgetown.
Like Jones, Tanner convinced Johnson to leave radio and return to firefighting.
Tanner said the number of accomplishments Johnson is responsible for within the department are too numerous to name in one newspaper article. However, he did discuss some things that have been a benefit to both the department and the residents, visitors and business owners in Georgetown.
One is the creation of the city’s low power radio station to help keep the public informed on important information during emergencies.
The station — WGEO-LP, 105.7 FM — has been on the air since 2002. It originally signed on as an AM station but later was moved to FM.
Because of his background in radio, starting the new way for the department to communicate with the public was right up Johnson’s alley.
Tanner said he and Johnson had been talking about creating a radio station for years before it became a reality. He said the need became evident after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 when it was very difficult to relay information specifically for Georgetown to the public.
These days, texts, Facebook, Twitter, emails and other sources are used to get the message out but in times of power failures, people still depend on radio to get information.
As a result of the station, Johnson has become the unofficial “voice of Georgetown” by also talking to the media on the city’s behalf during emergencies.
He is also the voice that is heard on the automated answering service when a call is placed to Georgetown City Hall.
During Monday night’s party, Mayor Jack Scoville said he hopes Johnson will continue to run the station. Thanks to the advancement in technology, Johnson can do it from his home.
Johnson seemed to like the idea and said it is something he is seriously considering.
Johnson also used his love of weather to help the department.
During times when the city would flood due to heavy rains, Johnson would put his hobby to work by keeping firefighters, city workers and the public informed on what was happening with the weather system.
“Normally, I would be out on the street and he would be constantly telling us what was going on,” Tanner said, adding Johnson’s presence was missed Monday when between three and three and a half inches of rain fell in the city in a short period of time.
Updated fire trucks
When Tanner and Johnson began at the department, the technology had not been invented to replace the volumes of books and commercial building plans firefighters had to lug around with needed hazardous material information and other things they needed to know to help them on the job.
“He was a big push in us getting computers on our fire engines,” Tanner said.
Because of the computers, firefighters arriving on the scene of a fire at a commercial structure can, by hitting a few buttons, see the layout of the building which is a big help in the firefighting effort.
The computers also inform firefighters on the various hazardous materials and how wide of an area needs to be evacuated in a hazmat incident.
Tanner said after seeing other departments with an Honor Guard, he approached Johnson with the idea of putting one together for Georgetown.
In January, 2006, Tanner — thanks to Johnson’s efforts — administered the oath of office to the first honor guard organized in the Department.
The unit is charged with the presentation of colors at various events and assisting with funerals. They recently presented the colors at the Dixie Youth Softball World Series at the new 8 Oaks Park.
Will be missed
“There were so many day-to-day things he did. He has been a mentor to a lot of guys. He was a great command officer,” Tanner said. “I cannot think of words to describe what he meant to the department and to me personally.”
As he talked about Johnson during Monday’s party, Tanner had a hard time fighting back his tears.
“You always had my back. I will always love you, man. You are my brother,” he said.
Johnson said he felt the time to retire was right.
“I have really accomplished all I want to accomplish. I have some other things I want to do. I want to try to do some fishing. And I definitely want to spend more time with my grandchild,” he said.
By Scott Harper