Fire chief hangs up his helmet

Iola Fire Chief Tim Thyer has seen a lot of changes over his 33-year career. He will retire during a pandemic, which has brought several new challenges for fire and ambulance crews.

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November 16, 2020 - 9:53 AM

Iola Fire Chief Tim Thyer is retiring this month after 33 years on the job. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Iola Fire Chief Tim Thyer has seen a lot of changes over the 33 years he’s worked for the department, but the basic mantra remains the same:

“Put the wet stuff on the red stuff.”

But thanks to technology, Thyer said, “We just have new ways of applying the wet stuff.”

Go back to 1987, though, and things were quite a bit different. 

In January 1987, then-Fire Chief Clarence Hydorn interviewed him for a full-time position, though Thyer wouldn’t actually be hired for another six months.

“Why do you want this job?” Hydorn asked.

“I want to help people.”

That’s something that hasn’t changed.

“I was 23 years old when I started,” he said. And because of how much he’s enjoyed the job, he’s “never worked a day since.”

Thyer, who will soon celebrate his 57th birthday, will retire on Nov. 25. He took some time last week to reflect on his career.

“We see people when they are having their worst day,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to be part of the response team that helps them through it.”

Thyer’s career will end during a pandemic, a situation that has brought new challenges for firefighting and ambulance crews.

“Unfortunately, 2020 just decided to be difficult. I knew when we had a fertilizer plant fire on New Year’s Day, 2020 would be a bad year,” Thyer said. 

In addition to the standard fire or EMS gear, crews have had to suit up with additional personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and gowns to avoid COVID-19. They also have had to increase cleaning, sanitizing and disinfection measures for the office, ambulances, fire trucks and equipment. 

“It’s our responsibility and duty to ensure we are dressed for success,” Thyer said, joking but also very serious. “COVID has been very difficult.”

The kind of gear firefighters wear these days is a far cry from the early years. 

Back then, crews would wade into a building wearing rubber boots and brown jersey gloves dipped in rubber. Now, boots and gloves are made with an outer layer of leather to protect against water and puncture, and inner layers to provide heat and flame resistance. 

“The gear lets you go a little farther.”

It’s also quite a bit more expensive. A helmet alone can cost $300. 

Fire trucks are bigger and more expensive, too. 

But the biggest change is on the EMS and ambulance side. Crews are required to have extensive training and carry a trauma kit on calls.  

“Technology has been really positive for EMS. You just have to know more,” he said. “Things have evolved on both sides to be more efficient.”

Thyer gave credit to city leaders for making sure the department has what it needs from a budget standpoint. He also recognized the county’s efforts to build new ambulance barns in Humboldt and Moran. 

The city and county departments merged in 2014. It took about a year to prepare and it wasn’t easy, Thyer said, but it has proven to be a good move.

“Change is always rough,” he said. “When we merged, some had blue shirts. Some had gray. What does that remind you of?”

But his fellow firefighters were always family. 

You rely on your brothers and sisters. We work as a team. That’s what I’m going to miss the most.

“You rely on your brothers and sisters. We work as a team,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to miss the most.”

In order to be hired for the fire department, Thyer first needed to serve two years as a volunteer. 

“Being a volunteer makes you or breaks you.”

His father was a police officer, so Thyer grew up with an appreciation for public safety. He thought he might want to work in the sheriff’s department, until he took a job at the jail and realized that wasn’t the right career choice for him. He started working for Sigg’s Auto and volunteered for the fire department.

Hydorn served as chief until 1993, then again as interim chief after a short series of replacements, and Jack Graves was hired as chief in 1994. Donnie Leapheart had the role from 1999 until 2014, when he retired and Thyer took over. 

Thyer remembers a captain once told him to be a bit more aggressive: “You kind of got to be a little wild to go into a burning building. Not ‘out of control’ wild. Just a little wild. A little on the edge.”

And Thyer admits he took that advice to heart. He enjoys the rush of fighting a fire. The more he was promoted and the more he took on extra responsibilities, the more he found himself sitting behind a desk rather than in the middle of the action.

The two biggest fires Thyer encountered came early in his career. 

In August 1989, the Smith Diesel building downtown.

A year later, in August 1990, several buildings on the west side of the square were destroyed by a massive fire. 

“I was on the scene for 26 hours,” Thyer recalled. 

He’s responded to many difficult calls, including fatality fires and car accidents. 

“That’s probably some of the worst things you can work. Seeing all that has an affect on you,” he said. “You see a lot of good stuff and a lot of bad stuff.”

He speculates the number of structure fires decreased after the 2007 flood destroyed many of the city’s older homes. 

“It’s been a good career. I appreciate being allowed to grow into this job.”

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