Owens celebrates 40 years
by Danny Wade
When Chester Owens was a young boy growing up in Humboldt, he realized he wanted to be a fireman one day. That dream came true and was the beginning of a long career in Humboldt.
Last week Humboldt Fire Chief Chester B. Owens Sr. celebrated 40 years on the job as a firefighter for the Humboldt Fire Department.
“I started (working for HFD) in 1977 on a snowy day just like today,” Chief Owens said last Friday. “Chief Wayne Day hired me and Tom McCaslin was mayor.”
Going back to his youth, Owens recalled two incidents that led him to becoming a firefighter. The first happened when he was a teenager.
“The duplex next door to my house caught fire,” Owens said. “The fire trucks came and they put out the fire. Then and there I thought I wanted to help and serve.”
The second experience happened when Owens was a senior at Humboldt High School.
“We were visiting family in Louisville, Ky. There was a fire a few houses down,” Owens added. “Before the fire department got there, I went into the house that was on fire to help get somebody out, anybody. That led me to know, that’s what I wanted to do.”
There was only one person in that house fire, but Owens helped get them out. He had found his calling.
His first day on the job the Humboldt Fire Department received a call of a house on fire in the country on S. 17th. Owens was literally ‘thrown into the fire’ that day.
“I was working the 2:30 to 10:30 shift and only been on the job for a couple of hours when we got the call,” Owens said. “We didn’t get back until 3:30 or 4 the next morning. I learned how to use an axe that day. We had to break through a chimney where the fire was. I thought, ‘maybe I picked the wrong job’, but I wanted to be a firefighter and a pilot.”
The first two or three of years, Owens worked as a dispatcher before moving up as the second truck driver. It was during the time as a driver that he learned how to fight fires. Chief Day saw something in Owens and in his 7th year with the department, he was promoted to lieutenant. A few years later he moved up to captain, a position he held for 13 years.
“In 1994, I was appointed chief by Mayor Martha Hawks,” Owens said. “I was actually appointed before but declined the position.”
Owens has been chief now for 23 years and has the longest tenure of any chief with the Humboldt Fire Department.
Owens loves being a firefighter but the job has one negative aspect, loss of life. Sadly for firemen, people do die in fires.
“The worst part of being a chief is to lose somebody in a fire,” Owens said with remorse. “Thank God we haven’t lost a firefighter. But losing someone in an accident or fire is hard.”
Over a 40-year spam, Owens has seen fire fighting change drastically. When he was hired, training was done within the force for the most part. Now firefighters must pass tests for knowledge, ability and technique.
“Now we have National Fire Protective Approved (NFPA) equipment, the very best you can have,” Owens stated. “All our firefighters are certified with the Tennessee Fire Service and Codes Enforcement Academy. The equipment we had then is not as advanced as what we have now.”
Owens also said there were more structure fires earlier in his career averaging around one per day. He accounts the fewer structure fires to improved building materials and code enforcement.
Although there may be fewer structure fires, HFD responds much more than before. Not only do firemen respond to fires but they also respond to all types of emergencies and accidents.
Over the years Owens has received numerous accolades. The wall behind his desk if filled with awards, plaques and certificates for leadership, training certifications, from the military, just to name a few. One acknowledgement his is very proud of and deservingly so, is that he is the first African-American 5-Bugle Chief in Humboldt and in the state of Tennessee. This is the highest rank achievable.
“But the best reward is when someone tells you, you saved my life,” Owens said. “My first call as chief was a house fire with a child inside. The ambulance could not respond and the child was dying, lying in the street. I used my chief’s car and took her to the hospital. The doctors said it saved her life. I still see her around town from time to time.”
Owens attests his desire to help and serve the people from being around positive people.
“I realized how important it is to grow up with positive people in your life,” Owens explained. “I did. My mother, Essie Owens, and my sister, Patricia Dennis, were always positive in our house. It depends how you want to live your life.”
Owens also praised the late Tommy Shepherd who owned Strasberg’s in Humboldt and Harry Mangold who worked at Wayne Knitting Mills. Owens says he is truly blessed to have had positive influences in his life growing up and becoming a young man.
That is one of the reasons he got involved with a program at Stigall several years back called Over the Top. Over the Top was a group of students the principal and teachers thought were troubled children and needed help. Owens said for a couple of years he spoke with these kids two or three times a week. His message was to have positive people in their lives. And now years later, he sees that his words to the children did sink in.
“Now they are grown up and are very productive citizens,” Owens noted. “Some went to college, one is a preacher and others have families.”
With 40 years under his belt as a firefighter, what is next for Owens? He said he could have retired with 30 years but he still enjoys working and serving the citizens.
“I’ve had a really good career, sometimes very stressful and you want to quit,” Owens said. “But serving the people makes you want to stay. I have a very good crew and working with Mayor (Marvin) Sikes keeps the department stress-free.”
When Owens does decide to hang up his badge down the road, he plans to continue his favorite hobby, flying his Cherokee 140 single engine prop airplane. He also loves flying drones and has several from smaller to larger.
But for now, citizens can feel safe and secure knowing a true Humboldtan, in every sense of the word, has their backs and is ready to serve.