Still serving in the rescue community

Fire Chief Luther Fincher had worked 42 years for the Charlotte Fire Department when he decided to retire last fall. He was the city's senior department head at the time, but his retirement was largely overshadowed by controversy surrounding Nick Mackey's bid to replace county Sheriff Jim Pendergraph. Fincher, 68, says he didn't mind that. “It was the right time to walk away,” he jokes. “I wasn't in any trouble.” Following are excerpts of an interview with reporter Mark Price.

Q. So, what do you do all day?

I serve on the International Association of Fire Chiefs' board of directors, representing all the large cities in North America, something I've done since 1993. I do a little consulting, too, with the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, a nonprofit organization that makes sure cities and counties developed good ordinances…I just got elected last July to the International Fire and Rescue Association, stationed in Europe. That requires me to go to Europe two times a year and attend conferences to make sure the United States' best interests are served.

Q. Why bother retiring at all?

I'd been with the city 42 years and in the Marines four years, and that's 46 years in public service. It was time to let all the young people I'd trained take over. Young people don't manage the way old people do. I'm sure the department was looking forward to another way of doing things, more creative ideas and solutions.

Q. What's the fun part of retirement?

I don't have to be somewhere at the same time every day. And the phone doesn't ring in the middle of the night, telling me somebody has been hurt. I used to panic when the phone rang in the middle of the night. Well, not panic, but it really concerned me that some fireman might have been hurt. They called me for bad fires, second alarm fires, people who died in accidents.

Q. What was your worst day on the job?

When Hurricane Hugo struck (in 1989). I don't think this city has ever faced that type of devastation, the loss of electrical power, so many trees down, so many people injured with trees falling through houses. We had a big oak tree that fell through a fire truck while it was out on a call. Nobody could get water. The only good thing about it was that it came in the middle of the night when people were off the roads. I couldn't even get out of my neighborhood because of the massive oaks that had fallen on the road. The fire department had to come cut me out, and I got to work at lunchtime that day. It was that way on every road.

Q. Have you gained any weight?

I lost 30 pounds, because I don't have to go to all those banquets.

Q. How are firefighters different from the rest of us?

Their willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done, even to the point of getting hurt. No matter the time of day, or the weather. They don't care about your politics. They always see people at the worst time of their lives, the day their house burned down or the day they had a terrible accident and everything has gone wrong. We take that chaos and make something out of it. When people panic, even police officers, they call the fire department. And when firefighters leave, they always leave people better off.