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Family firefighting legacy comes to an end in Franklin

Franklin Fire Deputy Chief Mike Culberson retirement ceremony held Thursday
 After more than 50 years, the Culberson family firefighting tradition in Franklin is coming to an end.  Franklin Fire Deputy Chief Mike Culberson, son of the late Franklin Fire Chief Jesse Wallace “J.W.” Culberson, retired this week.
Father and son leave behind a legacy of service to the citizens of Franklin, with father J.W. serving from 1963 to 1991 and ultimately being promoted to chief in 1976, and son Mike joining the department in 1979 and serving for more than 34 years.  Mike worked his way through the ranks, being promoted to engineer, lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, and finally, deputy chief in 2007. 
J.W. passed away in early 2007, just months before Mike’s promotion.  “He never got to see me make deputy chief,” said Mike. 
In his present position Mike oversees daily operations including fire suppression, emergency medical services, and training.  He provides direction and guidance both behind the scenes and on the scenes of major incidents and has even been known to make appearances during the Christmas season as Santa Claus.
Mike has seen many changes in both the city and the fire department since he became a firefighter at the age of 18.  In 1980 Franklin’s population was just over 12,000 people.  There was only one fire station, located at 604 West Main St. (now the Stites and Harbison law firm).  The building also doubled as the police department and City Hall.  Back then the fire department only responded to fires, and occasionally went to incidents where a vehicle was involved, “Only if it was on fire,” said Mike.
Today the city’s population is more than 62,000, the fire department has six fire stations with two more on the horizon, and 160 personnel.  Over the years, the department has evolved to provide vehicle extrication, technical rescue, and advanced life support medical care, in addition to fighting fires, responding to more than 6,000 calls a year.
At the start of Mike’s career, Franklin’s only fire station had two fire poles, a tradition many fire departments have abandoned because they prefer single story stations.  Mike said the firefighters weren’t worried about falling through the opening in the floor.  He said, “They worried about the sudden stop at the bottom.”  Adding, “You had to remember to flex your knees.”  He said the best technique for using the fire pole was to spiral around it on the descent, “To help you slow down.” 
He remembered “riding tailboard” his first two years as a firefighter, referring to the practice of riding to fires by standing on the tailboard of the truck (a 1971 American LaFrance) and holding on to the railing.  There was a buzzer on the back so tailboard riders could signal the driver, “We’d press once to go and two to stop,” said Mike.  He said this was another circumstance where you had to flex your knees and hold on.  Like the fire pole, all fire departments have discontinued the dangerous practice of riding tailboard for safety reasons.
“When I started we had one air pack,” said Mike.  “Everyone was scared to use it because we had to carry it to Nashville to get it filled.”  He said they opted instead to “protect” themselves from smoke by covering their mouths and noses with wet handkerchiefs or bandanas. 
Some of the most memorable incidents of his career include the fire at Ben Franklin 5 and 10 at 338 Main St. on Dec. 22, 1979, (where The Iron Gate is today).  Fire broke out as the firefighters were sitting down to celebrate their Christmas breakfast in the station bay.  Their annual Christmas party was scheduled that same evening.  Even though the firefighters fought the fire until three in the afternoon, the party continued as planned.
Mike also recalled a tragic fire involving a family of five with three young girls that occurred on January 28, 1981, in the Theodore Apartments on Adams St. (where the Generals Retreat condos are now located).  The mother handed one of the girls out the bathroom window and had the opportunity to escape but went back for her other daughters.  All three died in the blaze.  The father escaped by jumping through a window, but was seriously injured.
Despite sustaining a significant injury (electrical shock) that sent him to the hospital, Mike managed to rescue a woman and her son, with the help of Lt. Bill Fitzgerald, from a house fire on Edgewood Blvd. on December 13, 1988.  Mike and Lt. Fitzgerald were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Another big fire that he helped fight was the Jewel Brothers Tobacco Warehouse fire on April 12, 1989 which claimed the life of one man.
“It was an honor to work with my dad on several of these fires,” said Mike.
Mike was there for the flood in 2010, helping with water rescues throughout the city and especially in Fieldstone Farms.
He helped the department through a particularly rough time with the death of Firefighter-Paramedic David Cline, who died in an off-duty vehicle accident in 2009.
He said one of the things he’s most proud of in his career is that there have been no on-duty firefighter deaths under his command.  “I’ve commanded a lot of fires.  No one’s ever gotten seriously hurt or killed,” said Mike.
Mike’s son Michael, 26, is carrying on the family legacy, as a firefighter for the Metro Nashville Fire Department.
His daughter Joanna, 20, is also in public safety, serving as a sheriff’s deputy for Williamson County.  “She crossed the fence and went into law enforcement,” said Mike.  “I don’t tease her a bit and neither does her brother,” he said, explaining, “She’s been commissioned to carry a firearm.”
His oldest daughter Sarah, 28, is a teacher for Metro Nashville Public Schools.
Mike says he doesn’t have any sons or daughters-in-law yet, or grandkids, “I’m encouraging but not making any headway,” he laughs.  He added, “I’m proud of all my kids.”
When asked what he’ll miss most he doesn’t hesitate, “The guys.  The relationships I’ve had over the last 34 years.  Not being able to hear them go on a run and go with them.”
Although Mike is retiring from Franklin, he is not leaving the fire service.  He will become the Assistant Chief for the City of LaVergne Fire Department next week.
"Deputy Chief Mike Culberson has dedicated 34 years of his life to the Franklin Fire Department,” said City Administrator Eric Stuckey.  “We appreciate all he’s done to make the department one of the best in the area.  We will miss his expertise and wish him the best of luck in his retirement and his new position in LaVergne."
Mike and his wife Chouree reside on a small farm on Old Hickory Lake in Wilson County, where in their spare time they breed and raise Bernese Mountain Dogs.  Mike is also an avid bass tournament contender, fishing much of the Southeastern region of the United States. He was recently selected to be a member of the Ranger Boats Pro Staff.

Posted on: 2/15/2014


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