West Columbia Fire Chief Wyatt Coleman has been a loyal and dedicated public servant. After 40 years, all with the WCFD, Coleman is retiring. Chris Smith has been named as his replacement.
“I started on July 3, 1977 at the fire department that was over on Center Street,” Coleman said.
But like a lot of boys who are drawn to the excitement of the bright red fire trucks speeding to the action, Coleman did not long to be a firefighter. “I grew up on a farm in south Georgia,” Coleman said. He joined the West Columbia Fire Department as a volunteer, seven months before he was hired as a paid employee.
“I had a friend (Morgan Lindsey) who worked at the fire department,” said Coleman.
After 40 years in the profession of fighting fire and emergency response, Coleman said he has come to love the job for all of the good in it.
“It’s good to help people,” Coleman said. “You have got have that in your system. To know you are helping.”
He said people can feel helpless when their house is on fire. Coleman also said he senses the relief when the fire department shows up on the scene.
“We take care of it for them,” Coleman said.
Often, the first emergency responder to a call is the fire department. Coleman said his crews may have to perform Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation or apply a tourniquet to a victim who is bleeding. And while many times first responders are the heroes, Coleman said there are times when “they don’t make it.” He said seeing families struggling with a death, especially the loss of a child, is stressful and sad.
The reaction experienced by firefighters sometimes takes counseling. Coleman credited the S.C. State Firefighters Association FAST (Firefighter’s Assistance and Support Team) with helping firefighters process the unique type of strain that comes with the profession. But through all the ups and downs of his job, Coleman said he has had a rewarding career. He said the life of a firefighter requires dedication and constant training.
“It’s not just a paycheck,” Coleman said.
He also said as chief he has gotten to know lots of business owners and other people in the community, and they are glad to see him.
“People know we’re here to help them,” Coleman said, even with the simplest tasks.
“We may change the batteries in a smoke detector for people who can’t do it themselves,” Coleman said. “They thank us for it” and that is satisfying.
Coleman also said the role of the firefighter has changed in his four decades on the job.
Aside from being first responders to many types of 911 calls, the fire department is a part of river rescue operations and administering medical aid on the scene.
Despite the growing responsibilities, Coleman has expanded his role with them. And for that he has earned respect from others.
“Forty years of service certainly speaks to his dedication and love for West Columbia,” said West Columbia City Administrator Brian Carter. “Wyatt Coleman is the quintessential team player.”
Carter said Coleman has had to deal with significant and difficult issues over the years. During the floods in 2015 Coleman appeared on CNN, The Weather Channel and other media outlets. He handled himself like a professional, Carter said. Carter also said Coleman has treated his four, six-member crews like family.
Coleman had planned to retire at the end of June, but he stayed in his role as chief until Chris Smith could be hired. Coleman has also agreed to work an extra couple of weeks in order to make for a smooth transition. His effort to cooperate is not surprise to colleagues.
Former WCFD Capt. Tommy Parler, now a member of city council, worked with Coleman for 25 years.
“I always knew him to be a gentleman,” Paler said of Coleman. “He kept his cool and never flew off the handle. He’s very professional. It was a pleasure to work with him for 25 years.”.
Mayor Bobby Horton said Coleman has done an “outstanding job” as chief.
Horton said Coleman improved the quality of the fire department and he has “developed caring and professional firefighters.”
Horton also said Coleman’s ability to lower West Columbia’s ISO rate is a service to residents because it results in lower insurance costs.
“He’s done an excellent job as a first responder and he has gotten quality results from his crews,” Horton said.
Coleman is looking forward to his retirement and he plans to “walk away completely” from the job he has had for so long. But there will be lots of emotion on that last day.
“It will be hard after so many years,” Coleman said.
And many in West Columbia, who have come to know and love him, will have a hard time, too, when the era of Fire Chief Wyatt Coleman ends.
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