Never in Thomas Smothers’ wildest dreams did he imagine himself becoming a firefighter.
Now, the longtime city of Ocoee resident is continuing to make a community impact with his promotion to fire chief for the Ocoee Fire Department after 18 years of service.
Smothers was promoted to fire chief at the end of August, following the retirement of previous chief John Miller in April. Smothers has served as the acting fire chief since, working his way up from where he started as a fresh firefighter with the department in 2004.
“This is such a tremendous honor to me,” Smothers said. “To come back and work in the city that I grew up in — it’s just so humbling. I give God all the glory. He has led me all the way on this. I have no doubt He was the one (who) guided me toward this calling.”
Smothers comes from a long line of passionate first responders. His grandfather, Tommy Smothers, served as diction chief for the Pine Castle Fire Department, and his father, Irvin Smothers, worked for 30 years with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.
Since his start with the Ocoee team, Smothers has been on a rapid journey of progression from within the department.
In 2007, he became an engineer, and in 2009 he earned his paramedic title. One year later, he tested for lieutenant before earning the promotion in December 2011. However, the lieutenant position was not on an engine but as a training and EMS officer.
Smothers said the job was a huge role back then because the department was converting from Basic Life Support to Advanced Life Support to allow the department’s coverage of care to increase.
BLS is non-invasive, meaning a provider cannot use needles and other devices that make cuts in the skin or administer medicines. On the other hand, an ALS provider can give injections and even administer medication to a patient.
After about four years in the new position, Smothers said one of the engine lieutenants injured his knee. Smothers switched positions with his injured colleague while he recovered. However, after they both realized they enjoyed their new roles more, the switch became permanent.
In November 2018, Smothers was promoted to battalion chief. By June 2019, he had taken over as deputy chief on a temporary basis after a previous retirement. He was named deputy chief in March 2020.
Right in time for the pandemic.
“It was a very interesting time to be in that new position there, trying to figure out how we’re going to handle this disease that we didn’t know anything about,” he said. “It was a difficult time trying to get materials and trying to make sure our guys were safe.”
The Smothers family moved to the city of Ocoee in 1978, when Tom was 11 years old.
He said he lived about a quarter-mile from the current main fire department, where he now works, where orange groves coated the area.
Smothers attended West Orange High School and graduated in 1984. He played Little League baseball in the area, loved reading The West Orange Times and was a bag boy at the old Boogaarts grocery store.
After graduating high school, Smothers completed a stint with the U.S. Navy Reserves. He attended boot camp in Illinois before returning to Ocoee and working at Walt Disney World.
Smothers worked in warehousing at Epcot. After leaving Disney he took a job with an underground utility company before pursuing a position with a manufacturing representative company.
Feeling like something was missing, Smothers and his wife, Donna, moved in 1999 to the Carolinas, where he pursued the same type of work before he realized the location change had not filled the gaping hole in his heart.
“I wasn’t doing my calling; I kind of felt like I was bored,” he said. “I realized maybe Florida wasn’t the issue. It was what I was doing for a living.”
Smothers always thought about being a firefighter but already had gotten going in another line of work. He remembers being in Carolina and just gazing out into the world and thinking of his true purpose.
“I always saw signs like seeing fire engines or ladder trucks constantly passing by when I was thinking,” he said. “It was like something telling me I needed to look into the fire service.”
In 2001, Smothers enrolled in the Central Florida Fire Academy online and then started Emergency Medical Technician school in March 2002.
Watching the events of 9/11 urged him to push harder to become one of the many first responders he found to be so inspirational.
Smothers started fire school in 2003 while working full-time during the day at his old manufacturing job and attending fire school at night. He graduated Sept. 11, 2003.
On June 1, 2004, Smothers was hired at the Ocoee Fire Department as a brand-new, green, “riding backwards” firefighter.
Eighteen years later, the fire chief said he wouldn’t have changed a single step on his journey.
“It’s a matter of serving others,” he said. “It’s the purpose of being able to help others when they don’t have anyone else to turn to. That’s just the most amazing call you can have.”
Smothers said what makes the Ocoee Fire Department so unique is its hometown feeling.
“Even though Ocoee is growing … currently we are still a hometown department,” he said. “For us, it’s not a business, it’s a family. It’s about doing our job and doing what we have to do to take care of our community.”
The department includes four stations that cover the 16.67-square-mile city, with the farthest station being only a few miles from another, bringing each station together often for special events and training.
Smothers said one of his long-term goals is to break ground on a new fire station in the near future.
The targeted area falls in the north end of the city, which currently houses a temporary fire station for Section 38, located behind the ball fields at Vignetti Park in a manufactured home.
To go along with the growth of the city, Smothers said he has noticed many of the buildings beginning to grow vertically. To combat building height in case of an emergency, the chief is working to focus on obtaining a ladder truck to reach higher areas.
And of course, staffing will remain a central focus.
“Staffing has been a challenge not only for us but for every fire department in Central Florida,” Smothers said. “During the times of the pandemic, a lot of the fire schools were shut down, and they weren’t producing any firefighters. Cities are still growing, and firefighter positions are still being added, but there are not nearly enough firefighters to fill the positions needed.”
In the past year, the department has had as many as 10 vacancies at one time. The department currently only has three vacancies on a fully operational floor of 63.
In addition to skill sets, Smothers said he looks for someone who is trustworthy, humble, has local ties, is eager, ready to serve the community and learn, and has a good attitude and personality.
“There are some core values you simply can’t teach, and I am proud to say we host these qualities in our team of individuals,” he said.
Other goals for the department include the current upgrading and construction of some of the dynamics inside the station as well as integrating itself with the community following the pandemic.
The department plans to participate in more community events and outreach programs.
“Our community — that’s who we work for; they’re our customers, they’re our boss,” Smothers said. “We are a new and growing department and we want to do whatever is best for the community.”
Smothers’ favorite hobby outside of work is spending time with his three grandkids, with another due in the next few weeks.
His daughter, Brittany Kelly, is a firefighter and paramedic with the Winter Park Fire Department. His son, Chris Smothers, is an EMT for AdventHealth.
His other passion is traveling. He enjoyed an Alaskan cruise last year and will see Niagara Falls later this year. Next year, Greece is on the agenda.