By T. Scott Boatright
Tommie Woods is a career fireman, working his way over the past 36 years from basic firefighter to paramedic, driver, assistant chief and chief.
Those first 35 Woods spent as a member of the Ruston Fire Department, retiring from his role as chief last November.
But the Farmerville native has long felt a need to serve the people of the Piney Red Hills in and surrounding Lincoln Parish, so it isn’t surprising that Woods now finds himself in the role of serving as consultant and interim chief of sorts of the city of Grambling Fire Department.
Woods was born in Farmerville but his family moved to Ruston when he was young, and he ended up playing baseball for the Ruston High School Bearcats under head coach Cecil Barham before moving on to play briefly for what was the called Northeast Louisiana University, now known as the University of Louisiana-Monroe.
“I ended up coming back home and going to Louisiana Tech for a year before realizing that college wasn’t really my thing,” Woods said. “So I worked for a little bit and still played baseball while also getting drafted by the Cleveland Indians.
“But I didn’t go. I stayed home, and one of the guys I went to church with, Karl McCarter, who ended up marrying my aunt, was a firefighter and talked me into getting on with the Ruston Fire Department, and I worked there 35 years, from Sept. 2 of 1986 until November of 2021.”
But as someone known for teaching paramedic courses and working all his life, Woods already knew leaving what is his internal call to duty would be tough.
“In August of 2021 Mayor (Edward) Jones from Grambling called me and told me he needed me to get his fire department together,” Woods said. “I told him I was getting ready to retire and my wife wanted to travel, so I really didn’t want to be a fire chief anymore. He said that he really needed me to get his fire department together because it was falling apart.
“So I told him, OK, I would definitely be interested in being a consultant for the city of Grambling, telling them what they needed to do. They were looking for a fire chief then, but I told him that he really didn’t need a fire chief — they need firemen. When I started dealing with them, they had six people in the fire department. But they’ve lost three since then. So part of what I’m doing is looking for firemen.”
There was an increased need for Grambling’s need to Woods’ expertise – this is a year in which Grambling is assigned a fire protection rating, which can affect home and commercial costs as well as basic safety factors.
“I asked him in September about this being their rating year, and he said he wasn’t sure but he thought they might be,” Woods said, “And sure enough, 2022 is a rating year for Grambling. They hadn’t done anything to help their rating in five years. They didn’t have any more trucks. They didn’t have training. They hadn’t been doing needed yearly testing of equipment.”
Woods said former GFD Chief David Wells had gotten the city’s fire rating down to six during his tenure, but that not much had been done since then. Former RFD Chief Jerry Lewis briefly served as Grambling’s fire chief and after leaving was replaced by Aaron Conley, who resigned in April of 2021 and is currently awaiting sentencing on multiple charges involving second-degree rape, two counts of second-degree sexual battery, one count of aggravated second-degree battery and one count of domestic abuse battery with child endangerment.
“Tommie Woods came to Grambling in a time of dire need, and I can’t begin to say what his involvement has meant to the city,” Jones said. “There’s no way to properly thank him for what he has done, but he is greatly appreciated and always will be.”
Woods said he’s feeling better daily about Grambling’s fire rating outcome.
“I’ve talked to the mayor about doing the best we can for the city – asked him for some funds to try and help secure a decent rating and he provided them,” Woods said. “I told the City Council during a Council meeting that he has given everything I’ve asked for, even though I really haven’t asked for all that much.
“He’s working on a grant for a ladder truck that he knows the city really needs. We needed it six months ago. So we’ll see. We’re all trying.”
And it’s that trying that gives Woods gratification about being able to continue what he loves doing — serving the people of Lincoln Parish.
“I love Grambling,” Woods said. “We’re all one in Lincoln Parish. The Ruston Fire Department is like the parent, but we’re all related and tied together. I want to be able to help Grambling and the university come together just like Ruston and (Louisiana) Tech have.
“My wife reminded me that I said I wasn’t going to do this, but I truly feel that need to help. Grambing is part of Lincoln Parish — part of my home. We’re all in this together. I want to be able to help. Grambling, Choudrant, Simsboro, Dubach and Ruston all have to look out for each other. You can’t always stand alone. Sometimes we all need each other, all at the same time — different groups working together as a whole. And because of my experience, I feel I can do that. It’s what I want to do and what I feel I need to do.”