FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — May 29, 1971, is one day Forsyth County’s Fire Chief Danny Bowman will never forget.
He was a lieutenant working for the Atlanta Fire Department when he responded to a second-alarm assignment at a restaurant.
“We cut a hole in the floor, put our hoses in there, put out the fire and were going back to cut the second hole,” he said. “Little did we know, in the first hole, we put out the fire, which is a bad thing. It was gas main. When a gas main is put out, raw gas comes into the basement and, later that evening, it exploded.”
Bowman and a captain were standing at the front door and about to re-enter the building when they were launched across the street. The floor caved in after the explosion and four in Bowman’s crew were killed.
Another three or four feet and he would have been caught in the collapse rather than the explosion.
“All I remember is, when I opened my eyes, one shoe was gone and my helmet was off,” he said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘battalion chief is going to be mad because I’m not wearing my helmet.’ I had just blown 20 feet across the street and I was worried about a helmet.”
This is just one experience from Bowman’s 48 years in fire services that he calls life changing.
It also may be why he strives to keep his 189 firefighters, soon to be 195 in September, safe.
“When I went on the Atlanta Fire Department in 1968, you were expected to ‘man up,’” he said. “No air mask, (you had) pants, a coat maybe, maybe a pair of gloves, but you always had on your helmet. You hung on the back of a firetruck at 60 miles per hour. There is asphalt going past you. Very little was done for the absolute protection of that fireman. Helmet, in case a brick fell and hit you in the head, maybe it would bounce off. But other than that, ‘just get in there, boy, and knock it down.’”
Now, he said, safety of the firefighters is of the utmost importance.
“I am not satisfied if I learn of one square inch of skin being exposed or one breath of toxic air,” he said. “It’s unacceptable. I will fight until my dying breath that we have the funding for the best tools and equipment that you can buy to protect that firefighter. If he or she goes down, the public is put in danger.”
Bowman’s no-nonsense mentality could be attributed to his upbringing. Growing up, he was involved in his high school’s ROTC program. And as a self-proclaimed “Army brat,” he followed in his father’s military footsteps, joining the Air Force after high school.
Soon, National Guard status was offered to him, which gave him the ability to handle military obligations and a job at the same time. So he took it and found the Atlanta Fire Department was hiring. He started in 1968 and never looked back.
“I had given a lot of thought about just staying in the Air Force, the way my father stayed in the Army,” he said. “I really loved the military. It meant a lot. Knowing there were positions being filled on the Atlanta Fire Department was the closest I could get to a military or paramilitary organization. There is a uniform, you don’t salute, but nonetheless, when the captain says jump, you ask how far. I really liked that. At 18 years old I liked riding on the back of an Atlanta firetruck with two crusty old Atlanta firemen on either side of me, looking out for the kid. I had some good instructors with the Atlanta Fire Department. They really set me on a straight path.”
Throughout the years, Bowman has held many different positions, from lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, deputy chief and fire chief. And he has moved around, too, from the Atlanta Fire Department, to helping form the Fulton County Fire Department to his current role in Forsyth County.
He even had the chance to learn about the department’s budget, which he says “really drives a fire department.”
The Forsyth County Fire Department’s budget today is $21 million, a number that can seem intimidating but is necessary, he said, to protect citizens. In 2015 alone, the fire department responded to 13,283 events.
Some of those cases weren’t just “putting out fires.” The department is responsible for protecting all of Forsyth County, including the city of Cumming, and also provides emergency medical services and serves as an emergency management agency during events like tornados. In addition, the FCFD has a “subset of specialties” including deep-water drowning, swift-water rescue, trench rescue, high-angle rescue, water in a basement 3 feet deep, and hazardous materials.
But even with all the responsibilities that come with being the Forsyth County fire chief and how honored he is to hold the position, Bowman says his job is the least important in the department.
“I am deeply committed and dedicated to the health and safety of all of my firefighters because they in turn are deeply dedicated to the protection of life and property of the public,” he said. “If I walked away from this job for a month and came back, I bet you wouldn’t have missed me. But you take that black-helmet firefighter and he leaves the job for one minute, the public is at risk. They, the firefighters, must be protected because they protect the public.”