Madison County Fire Department Chief Tim Gray said he had never imagined he'd be back at the fire department after he retired for eight months, much less at the helm.
Though, as a kid, he never thought he'd be a fire fighter, either.
Gray grew up in Madison County on a farm in the Valley View area, and his friend's father was a fire fighter, he said. Then after high school, he decided to apply for fire fighting positions, because a fire fighter's schedule would allow him to continue farming.
"I never dreamed I'd be a fireman," he said. But, after high school, "Everybody's gotta go to work and do something."
So after graduating in June of 1996, he started submitting applications, and in late January or early February of '97, Gray was hired as a volunteer for the Richmond Fire Department.
"I was a young kid, and it looked good," he said.
All of Gray's training was on the job, and in July of that same year, he was hired by the Madison County Fire Department and worked as a fire fighter until spring of 2003, when he was promoted to lieutenant. Then he was promoted to captain, the position he kept until his retirement in 2017.
Along the way, he said, he started liking the job, too.
"I've always been one (where) if I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability and try to be the best at it I can be," Gray said.
"I started going and getting training our fire department didn't require," he said. "I didn't want to be here for 20 years and retire and somebody ask me if I've ever done anything. We may not have done it in our department, but I know basically a little bit about how it worked."
Right after he started, he said, he began collecting every certificate he received in a book, which he calls his "I love me" book. Gray said even now, he still has training he has to do and classes to attend, some of which are out of state.
"This is a job where the day you quit training, it's time to go home," he explained.
Gray admits that some days he was a firefighter, things were tough. With more than 20 years under his belt, he has responded to all sorts of tragic calls, but he said that's just part of the job.
"You remember all of them -- the bad ones, you remember them," he said. "It stays with you the rest of your life, but you've got your brothers and sisters at work with you here, that we call each other, and we help each other through those times if we have any kind of critical stress issues."
After all, helping others, he said, regardless of if those other people are fellow firefighters or the people whose home is burning down, is what the job is about.
"You do it because you enjoy helping people, and we show up at everybody's worst time of the day or night, whenever it is. When you call for us, it's usually not a very good outcome," Gray explained. "They're having a bad day. … We show up and try to stop the problem, whatever it is, whether it's on fire or they're trapped or whatever's going on, we try to assist them with that and help them through that time and show them that everything can be better."
Gray believes every fire fighter enjoys that aspect of the job, too.
"They like helping people, or they wouldn't be in this profession," he said.
For Gray, personally, he said helping people is just the way he was raised.
"You help one another out," he said. "If somebody needed help, you lended them a hand 'cause somewhere down the road, they might have to help you."
Gray said although he enjoyed the job, he became burnt out after 20 years and chose to retire. He spent a third of his life, from age 18 to 39, in the firehouse, and watched his two children grow up not knowing any different other than every third day, Gray was gone.
"Sport events, school functions, anything like that, we were lucky enough that we got to go to them if they were close, if we were on duty," he said. "Still, yet, it never failed when it was actually something you really wanted to watch or see, the call came in, you had to leave."
After a while, the job took its toll on Gray.
"It's a young man's game," he said. Some shifts include coming in at 7 a.m. and not being back at the station until 7 a.m. the next day.
Gray was only retired for eight months between 2017 and 2018 before he applied to be the chief of the fire department, and he returned because he missed it.
"It's your family away from your family, so to speak," he said. "A lot of the guys that were here were guys that were on my crew at some point or another, and when they made it available, those guys called me."
Gray had also told them that if the opportunity ever arose, he would probably go for it.
"I never thought I'd be back," he said.
However, he said he enjoys being the chief.
As a captain, he said, he dealt with the public every day and was responsible for day-to-day operations. But as the chief, he acts as a liaison between his captains and the fiscal court.
"We've got an outstanding court group that supports the fire department," he said. "They understand more than the previous groups over the last 20 years. They've given me the opportunity to move the fire department forward."
For the most part, he listens to what his fire fighters need, and he tries to relay that to the Madison County Fiscal Court. One of the things he's done since chief, he said, was putting two new engines into service.
Being in the role of chief for about two years now, Gray said there's still things he wants to get done.
"I would like to see us get more people," he said. Currently, there are 25 employees of the department, including Gray, which he said is probably not enough for a county this size.
Additionally, he'd like to see a couple more fire stations throughout the county to benefit more people. Ideally, he'd like to see 40 paid employees.
"We have to drive at least a mile, a mile and a half, any direction to get out in the county," he said. "We need to be out in the county somewhere."
He also said he'd like to see volunteer firefighters at the fire department. Currently, all employees are paid, and Gray said he could use volunteers if overtime work is needed to be done or to fill in for people who are off. It would also give Gray a group of people to hire from when he's looking to fill paid positions.
Overall, he could see himself staying as chief for about another eight years if everything goes well.
"But almost two years have gone by, and it's gone by fast," he said. "I may stay longer, they may get rid of me before then."
Overall, he said, "I want to leave it in a better place than where I found it when I came in."