THE day Wendy Fitzwilliam won the Miss Universe title in May 1998, David Thomas also accomplished a major feat – one which he regards as a highpoint of his career as a fireman.
Thomas single-handedly rescued a three-year-old boy from a burning house at Coral Gardens, Buccoo, Tobago – an experience, he said, has stuck with him over the years.
“He (the boy) is now 27, but I first saw him about 11 years after he was rescued. The scars from the fire were still on his face and chest, and I melted,” he told Sunday Newsday in a wide-ranging interview.
Thomas, who joined the Fire Service on November 1, 1982, retired on August 17 as the Assistant Fire Chief, Tobago. He assumed the position on November 24, 2021.
Thomas had served the Fire Service for 39 years, nine months and 17 days. He turned 60 on August 18.
Respected for his professionalism, work ethic and down-to-earth demeanour, Thomas was celebrated for his contribution to the Fire Service at several events over the past week, including a motorcade from his native Scarborough to Roxborough, where he served for many years.
He described his career as illustrious and gratifying, saying he has no regrets.
“Today, I am an extremely happy man.”
But he said saving that toddler's life some 24 years ago ranks as one of his proudest moments in the service.
Thomas, who was an acting fire sub-station officer at the time, recalled he was at the Scarborough Fire Station for a meeting when he learnt about the burning house in Buccoo.
A sentry told him the first-strike appliance was out on a call and they were having difficulty reaching it.
Thomas pulled together a crew and headed to Coral Gardens. When he got there he was told there was a child in the house.
Noting that the crew was made up of auxiliary firefighters, Thomas said he quickly realised the responsibility for rescuing the child fell solely on him.
After breaking down doors to two rooms, Thomas said he found the child in a crouched position in a corner of the house. Parts of the boy’s skin, he recalled, had already turned white.
“My one chance was to dive over a table, take him and go through a window behind. I did that.
"When we fell outside, I was good and the child was good. I submerged him in a tub of water to immediately cool him down.”
The boy was then wrapped in a blanket and taken to hospital.
“Even now, I still feel a level of satisfaction that I saved a life. That one remains with me all the time.”
Reflecting on other pivotal moments in his career, Thomas said he was the first officer to have successfully trained a group of 63 young people in 2005-2006.
“I did not lose one trainee to injury or otherwise. Even those who found the training was hard and wanted to leave, I was able to surmount all of the challenges and after the training, I made sure that they graduated.”
He claimed that has not happened for years in the Fire Service.
“So that, too, was a real high point for me.”
Never one for armchair administration, Thomas said he was always willing, eager and ready to lead his charges in the field.
“Once something is happening, you can expect to see me on the battleground.
“When I leave home in the morning, if it takes me to midnight or 2 o’clock in the morning, I stay at work until my work is done for the day.”
The third of seven children born to Aldwin and Alice Des Vignes, Thomas grew up in Government House Road, Scarborough. He lived next door to the family of prominent senior counsel Gilbert Peterson.
Thomas said Peterson, his siblings and other children would often come into their large yard to play.
He recalled his mother, now 81, helped nurture several of the children in the area.
“My mother is qualified to be his (Peterson’s) mother, because she took care of everybody in the neighbourhood.”
Thomas, who became emotional at times, said his family had little means.
“We had the yard space, but we weren’t rich at all...
“I know about wearing other people’s clothes. I know about riding mill to squeeze sugar cane. I know about planting acres and acres of tobacco, peas, corn, cassava, potato, yam, dasheen. I know about walking to school.”
Thomas worked several jobs, some menial, before he was accepted into the Fire Service.
He rose through the ranks and embraced opportunities for growth and experience. He was sent to the UK on three occasions to do courses. And while he did well in the programmes and got job offers from other parts of the world, Thomas said the well-being of his five sons was his top priority.
Two of them have followed in his footsteps.
“I love being seen by my sons as the number-one father in the world. and they will tell you that. All my sons will tell you in no uncertain manner that I am their best friend.
"So with all of that commitment and passion in the Fire Service, my sons were never left out.”
Thomas said after 39 years, the majority spent in Tobago, he has a comprehensive understanding of what is needed to make the service more efficient and effective.
But he said the availability of apparatus to respond to fires and other emergency situations must be balanced with a willingness on the part of officers to maintain it.
“I think there is much that can be done, but let me hasten to say, I am looking at both sides of the fence. Whatever is made available to us, we need to be a lot more caring. We need to understand what preserving these pieces of equipment and apparatus represents. We need to understand the value.”
At present, Thomas said, if the Chief Fire Officer is asked for an appliance for the Scarborough Fire Station, it cannot be provided in under three years.
“That is just what the bureaucracy and the system of procurement is.”
Also, he added, manufacturers do not have appliances resting on a shelf, so requests for appliances, in particular, must be made long in advance.
Saying the lifespan of a fire appliance is usually about ten years, he said once it is properly cared for, it could last an additional five years. Attempts to procure a new appliance should be made by year seven.
“But people are more spontaneous-minded. You want this today and you must get it today. People do not make themselves au courant with the system. And if the system is suggesting to you that you cannot get a new appliance under three years, then three years prior to the expiration of the life of that appliance, you should have an order in.”
Admitting that Tobago is not adequately positioned to deal with all of its requirements, Thomas said it is in need of at least four sub-stations.
“Everything about firefighting and rescue and any emergency has to do with the golden hour – response time. And you can see it without even looking at data and know that we cannot reach Castara, Parlatuvier or L’Anse Fourmi in a quick time to salvage anything if there is a fire.”
He said the service needs to refashion its approach to work to allow for initial and then eventual responses.
Thomas said he has already discussed the issue with the Chief Fire Officer and THA Chief Secretary Farley Augustine, who he said has identified sites in Charlotteville, Mason Hall, Castara and Shirvan for substations.
He said once they are built, it will cut down response times to incidents “in a real sense."
“If you have an initial response and back-up comes, you will achieve a lot more success.”
Thomas, who lives in Speyside, said over the years he has presented a large number of Tobagonians with opportunities to be enrolled in the Fire Service.
He said before 2000, only ten Tobagonians would have been trained in a batch of 100-150.
The scenario, he felt, needed to be changed.
“I embarked on a project, did the surveys, set up the classes and we are now exporting Tobagonians to Trinidad to take up positions. Every batch that would have passed out prior to 2000 or even 2005, there would be Trinidadians taking positions here, because Tobagonians were not coming out at the top of the pack.”
Thomas said it took him 20 years to reverse the trend.
“In the last exam, there were 200-odd Tobagonians in the first 300 and there was a manifestation of that in the number of persons that were employed from Tobago in the Fire Service over the last four years.”
As a result, he added, “So Tobago is almost totally outfitted with persons from Tobago and there are a number of persons in Trinidad. If you go to Piarco, if you go to headquarters, Chaguanas, South, you will see the number of Tobagonians down there working. And that came out due to the success of that revolutionary approach to preparing Tobago for entrance into the Fire Service.”
But Thomas said there is a marked deficiency at the senior level on the island.
“I am demitting office and there is no Tobagonian prepared to take over from me, and there is a good chance that might not happen under ten or 12 years.”
Thomas said although he is out of the service, he intends to embark on a plan to prepare officers with the potential to take over.
“I have set up the framework, so I am going to institute that so that over the next ten years we would have a number of Tobagonians ready to take office at the top of the Fire Service. That is my ten-year project. It is what I still plan to give to public life.
"And then I would look in terms of a hammock or rocking chair.”
The retiree, who lives his life in moderation and still enjoys a game of football, said his immediate plans do not involve any full-time work arrangement or “dressing back."
“I am willing to make contributions to the development of Tobago. If the THA sees it fit to appoint me to a board or two, I would serve, because I am really not interested in going to work every day. I worked hard in the Fire Service.
“My satisfaction in leaving the Fire Service is because, in my mind, I am convinced beyond measure that I have given the Fire Service my best. So there is no regret where that is concerned, and no hard feelings.”