CONWAY Bart Castleberry of Conway was the youngest fire chief in Arkansas when he was hired in 1993, but now at age 55, he said it’s time to leave.
“I may be the longest standing chief in Arkansas,” he said. “It’s time to let somebody else do that job.”
Castleberry is leaving the Conway Fire Department, effective Friday, after 32 1/2 years of service, 20 years as chief.
He announced his retirement first in 2011 because he was at the end of his 10-year “drop,” and retirement was mandatory, he said.
The Arkansas Legislature changed the law, and Castleberry said city employees could stay if they did not draw their retirement or the city didn’t pay more retirement.
Castleberry said he asked Mayor Tab Townsell if he could stay, “and he said, ‘Great,’” Castleberry said.
In June, Castleberry took another resignation letter to the mayor.
He said Townsell asked, “Are you sure?”
“I said, ‘I am.’
“He said, ‘I want you to know you’ve done a good job, and you most certainly don’t have to leave,’” Castleberry said. “The mayor’s been very supportive.”
“Well, you know, I really don’t have a good answer to that, except that I had a real peace about it,” he said. “I was not ready two years ago, and now I am. You just know that the time is right.”
He isn’t going fishing — he’s taking a job as director of the office of building permits and inspection.
“I’ll be over inspections and permits and code enforcement. I’m a licensed plumbing contractor, and I’ve always liked the building trades and liked getting out on job sites and meeting people,” he said. “I’ve had some good job offers that I have turned down — some really good ones — some in Conway, some out of state.
“I’m 55, and I really feel like I have some things to offer — still have good energy, and I feel good and I want to work,” he said.
“I wanted something that allowed me to stay in Conway — this next job is a good fit.
“It’s going to be a learning curve for me — I’m not even going to think I know everything.”
Castleberry does know firefighting.
In 1979, he bought his family’s grocery store, Castleberry’s Market, in downtown Conway.
He was working part time for the ambulance service, “and I had friends who were firefighters,” he said.
He liked the camaraderie.
Castleberry took the test and passed, but he had to get approval from Chief Wilson Drews.
The late Bill Wright, who was mayor and a diabetic, had to go to bat for Castleberry.
“I was an insulin-dependent diabetic, and that caused some concern, but Mayor Wright talked to the chief,” Castleberry said.
“I never had a diabetic-related incident that kept me from doing my job. I’ve really been blessed,” he said.
Castleberry said he knew on the first run — when he drove the firetruck to the scene of a jet fuel-tanker accident on the interstate — that he’d found his place in life.
He became fire marshal in 1990 before being chief.
“It’s changed a lot. I was the 24th [full-time] guy hired, and we have 109 (107 uniformed) now. I remember the year we made 365 runs, and we thought that was something. Now we’re making close to 10,000 company runs a year. Eighty percent are medical, so that has changed, but you know, it’s a great service for the community. The average response time in the city is three minutes.”
Assistant Chief Mike Winter praised Castleberry’s leadership in the department.
Castleberry hired Winter in 1995.
“He’s always been very progressive,” Winter said, and the Conway Fire Department has been a leader in the state because of it.
Winter said the Conway Fire Department was the first in the state to put automatic external defibrillators on trucks.
“He brought that in. That was just unheard of for fire departments to have those,” Winter said.
“The bomb squad. That was another huge undertaking, and that’s not something you say you want one and get. He saw a need for one in Conway, and we started that process in ’99, and in 2004, the first two of us graduated school.”
Winter said Castleberry’s forward thinking helped expand the department from five stations in 1995 to seven stations to make sure the city’s needs were met.
“I feel like I accomplished most of my goals, but I had a lot of good help, a lot of good people,” Castleberry said.
“One thing I hope they continue with, and we’ve started doing the research on it, is sending people to paramedic school and creating paramedic engines,” he said. Although every firefighter is an emergency medical technician and some are EMT intermediates, paramedics are more skilled. “You can start a more advanced level of care,” Castleberry said.
“Now, a new chief may come in and decide that’s not the way he wants to go, and that’s his decision.”
Castleberry said at least six downtown fires have occurred since he’s been with the department.
The first downtown fire he remembers was at Foster Oar, which no longer exists.
“I was on duty, and Keith Gresham (who worked at United Motor Co.) walked into the station and said, ‘I think there’s a fire at Foster Oar.’”
“He wasn’t kidding,” Castleberry said.
Castleberry and Charlie Scroggins entered the building.
“It paddled me and Charlie — it threw us right out the front door,” he said. “Within two minutes, it was out the roof. It was a fast-moving fire.”
He has an oar in the corner of his office as a reminder of the event, along with bricks from structure fires, including Hendrix College. He was a firefighter on duty at 4:04 a.m. Feb. 6, 1982, when the call came in that the administration building was on fire.
“The wind chill was 11 below zero. That’s when I started drinking coffee,” Castleberry said.
On an October morning in 2002, he was on the phone to City Council member Shelia Whitmore.
“I saw brown smoke coming out of Ed Camp’s. … I said, ‘Shelia, I gotta go, I think something’s on fire.’”
Last week, Castleberry was in downtown Conway watching as his men kept a small blaze in a storage shed under control.
“It had potential,” he said.
Another fire that he can’t forget wasn’t the biggest, but it was one of the worst — “where we found two children in a mobile home in the mid-’80s,” he said.
It was at Chateau Village Mobile Home Park in 1987.
“I was scared, because I didn’t want to find them ... but if they were [there], I wanted to find them,” he said.
A 3-year-old and 5-year-old died in the fire, he said.
“They were in the corner — there wasn’t anything we could do. The little boy had put his sister behind him; he was trying to protect her,” he said.
“It was the hardest thing — I had small children at the time; it was just tough.”
Castleberry and his wife, Melissa, have three sons: Tyler, a firefighter with the Maumelle Fire Department, who is in school to become a paramedic; Zach, a commercial electrician; and Sam, who is working on a doctorate in theology and philosophy at Drew University in Madison, N.J.
Chief Castleberry said in a previous interview that he started to college after high school and lasted “till the first deer season.”
He made up for it — he graduated cum laude in 2011 from Arkansas Tech University with a Bachelor of Science degree in emergency administration. He took full course loads during the summer, along with May intercession classes.
“And only being able to type with two fingers, but let me tell you, they’re fast,” he said, laughing.
Other fires that Castleberry mentioned when asked for a list are an interstate fire with five fatalities, a Christmastime fire in 2009 in which a mother and three children were killed, the First Baptist Church fire in 1992 and the American Transportation Corp. fire in 1994. A fire at Detco Industries, a chemical company, in 2004 injured two of its employees and received national attention.
“It wasn’t the biggest fire, it was only 35,000 square feet, but it was right after 9/11. The first thing everybody thought is, this could be an act of terrorism,” he said.
He went into a trailer and was shown three phones, he recalled in an earlier interview, including one that went straight to then-President George W. Bush.
Although he said that was “cool,” he didn’t place a call.
There were times that Castleberry said he was afraid during a fire.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve been scared during several of them. Sure. I have a lot of respect for the fire. It’s been 20 years since I’ve been in a big fire,” he said.
“A lot of them I don’t forget, but it goes with the job; it’s what you do,” he said.
Not for him anymore.
“I have really loved the job. It’s going to be hard to leave, but we’ve got great people there,” he said.
“Not everyone can say they loved their job, but I did.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.