Monday, July 31, 2017

Keith Retires from Fire Department after 40 Years

Danny Keith 

Retiring Sallisaw firefighter, Danny Keith, third from the right in front, is the
 “last of the old timers” in this photo taken in 1984, said Fire Chief Anthony Armstrong.

“It’s the camaraderie. That’s what I’ll miss. The guys are what I’ll miss and what will hurt me. We’re brothers.”

After almost 40 years as a Sallisaw firefighter, Danny Keith, 61, is retiring from that post today, July 31.

But, as he joked with Sallisaw Fire Chief Anthony Armstrong Monday afternoon, “You still got me until midnight.”

Keith became a volunteer Sallisaw firefighter at the age of 21 in 1977. Being a firefighter and the training provided were very different then compared to now.

“It’s more professional now,” Keith said. “Back then you just watched everyone else. That’s how you learned. Then you just broke out a window and put water on the fire. Now you go in and fight the fire.”

Keith said that, with his retirement, the Sallisaw Fire Department will have three openings. Jarret Hetherington retired after 22 years and Dwayne Burgess retired after 17 years. That leaves three openings on the 20-firefighter city fire department.

Armstrong said the department had eight applications, now down to seven because one applicant did not pass the agility test. The seven remaining applicants must also pass a physical exam.

The new firefighters are all required to be certified as Firefighter 1. He explained that is a 40-hour college-level course, Keith explained.

“We trained for eight weeks on Saturdays,” Keith said. “It’s pretty inclusive.”

In addition, firefighters are also required to continue to train for at least one night a month.

All Sallisaw firefighters, with the exception of the chief and assistant chief which are full-time salaried positions, are volunteers but get a small wage depending on their experience and rank.

Keith recalled, “When I started we got $5 a run if we squirted water.”

In the last 40 years, Keith has held every position available at the Sallisaw Fire Department. He recalled he has served as lieutenant, captain, assistant chief and chief. In the early days, the firefighters rotated through the ranks. Now the ranks are permanent.

Keith, and many of Sallisaw’s firefighters, are also city employees. Keith is telecommunications supervisor at Diamond Net where he has worked for about 14 years. He began with Bill Martin at Martin’s TV Repair, then went to work for Sudden Link before taking the Diamond Net post with Sallisaw. Keith said he plans to stay on with Diamond Net for a while.

Those 40 years as a firefighter have left Keith with many memories.

He said the biggest fire he and fellow firefighters had to fight was the one that destroyed Peggy’s Café, a popular eating spot in downtown Sallisaw, and the adjoining building, which once was a bank that drew the attention of Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Another fire Keith recalled was the one in June 2004 that destroyed the old Sallisaw High School, which, through the efforts of many residents and graduates, had been turned into a museum and community center.

But the most devastating fire for Keith was the one that took the life of then Fire Chief Gus Fullbright Jr.

“The fire that got Gus was the worst,” Keith said. “Gus was my best friend.”

In 1995 the Sallisaw fire station was renamed as the Gus E. Fullbright Jr. Fire Station in memory of the late fire chief. Keith said that fire was studied in depth because it was a car fire that erupted forcefully when the gas tank exploded, spraying the unsuspecting firefighters with gas. Several were burned and Fullbright died as a result of his injuries.

Keith himself was uninjured during that fire but was injured in a different one. 

He explained, “It was at a house at night, and I guess the resident had left a grill burning on the deck. It caught the deck on fire, but when we got there, the fire was up the side of the house. I didn't see the deck had burned.”

When Keith stepped on the deck to fight the fire, he fell through up to his chest. Fellow firefighters pulled Keith out, but he suffered a broken rib in the fall.

The role and mission of Sallisaw firefighters has evolved in recent years. Now most are also first responders and are called to accidents of all kinds and to help those who cannot help themselves.

“The rescue,” Keith said, “that’s the part I enjoy the most.”

There is one rescue that will remain with Keith forever.

“It was a guy, who was drunk, who hit a family head on,” Keith recalled. “It killed the mom and dad instantly. There were three or four kids, I don’t remember how many, in the car too. I carried one little girl to the ambulance. She was about the age of my own daughter. I learned later she died. She probably died in my arms. That one has stuck with me. It’s the innocent ones that pay the price.”

While paying one more visit to the Fullbright Fire Station on Monday, Keith took a bit of brotherhood ribbing from Chief Armstrong and Assistant Fire Chief Steve Padgett. It was the kind of brotherhood Keith said he will miss the most.

“He will be missed,” Armstrong said. “He is the last of the old timers.”

“I’ve seen a lot,” Keith admitted about his experience over the years. And he would serve his community and do it all over again, he said.

“I don’t regret any of it,” he concluded.

Keith and wife Debby have 5 children and 7 grandchildren. 

Sally Maxwell, Senior News Director

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