By Donna Williamson
Albert Smith’s career with the Opelika Fire Department spanned 46 years and culminated with his being appointed Opelika Fire Chief in 1978, a position he maintained until his retirement in 1990.
Smith knew at a very young age that he wanted to be a fireman, that it was his “calling” and would become his chosen path. “As a child when the Opelika Fire Department answered a call, I went to the fire on my bicycle,” he said.
During World War II many young men were in the military and, according to Smith, high school boys became fire department volunteers. “That’s how I became involved,” he said. “I quit school when I was 17 and went to work at the fire department.” At the age of 20, he was promoted to assistant chief and continued to move up the ranks to become fire chief.
When he started in 1944, five people worked in the fire department. “We worked 24 hours a day, six days a week with 45 minutes for lunch, supper, and breakfast,” he said. “We were off every fifth Sunday, and off time was from 7 a.m. until midnight.”
When Smith was hired, the Opelika Fire Department was located where J. Smith Lanier Insurance Company is now (707 Avenue A). “The firemen lived upstairs and slid down the pole to get to the trucks,” he said. “All city offices were up there, the police department and the jail. City Hall was upstairs where the firemen lived.”
Smith left the fire department in 1955 when he was drafted into the army. After serving in Korea, he came back to Opelika and to the fire department.
Smith attended training schools in Canada, North Carolina and Tennessee, and he also taught at the Alabama State Fire College in Tuscaloosa for several years. “A fireman’s training never stops,” he said. “The fire department is a young man’s job, a dangerous job.”
In 1979 the 911 system was initiated, with emergency medical service and rescue service made available for Opelika. “The fire department received its first rescue truck with medical equipment,” Smith said. “That has been a blessing.”
“All firemen are Emergency Medical Technicians. Some are paramedics, and all must be state certified,” he explained.
Smith said he is very proud of the fire training facility that was created during his tenure as chief. He knew the city owned an old sewage treatment plant that was not in operation. “I saw this as an ideal location for a training facility, and city officials agreed to let the fire department use the space to create one,” he explained. “Fire departments in the area still train at this facility, which includes classrooms, and it is one of few to be state approved.”
Also, while he was chief, the city improved from a Class 5 to a Class 2 in its fire insurance rating. Smith doesn’t take credit for this accomplishment, saying that it was a joint effort by the entire city.
A fireman’s life can be very stressful for his family. Albert and his wife Mary Rose met on a blind date and have been married for 61 years. They have two daughters, Cynthia Rose Cooper, who lives in Birmingham, and Julia Allison Stutts, who lives in Opelika. “It was not always easy being the wife of a fireman. I was alone with my children for many, many days and nights,” Mary Rose said.
Although a fireman’s job is to be taken very seriously, there can be some humorous moments, one of which belonged to Smith. He can’t suppress a smile as he tells his story. “When I was a young fireman in 1946, we slept upstairs and had big bells that would ring when we had a call. One night I heard the bells but was still half asleep. I didn’t jump into my suit and pull on my boots like I was supposed to do. Instead, I went down the pole in my underwear, got on the truck and went to the fire. Thankfully, it wasn’t a bad fire. I remember asking Bully Whittaker, who was fire chief at that time, for his coat. The chief said, ‘Get your own.’ A reporter followed us to the fire, and there was a story about me in the newspaper the next morning.”
Smith said he loved serving and helping people. “It could be a cat in a wall or a bad wreck. Either way, you are serving the public, and that’s what I enjoyed. I was very fortunate to be a fireman in Opelika.”