Getting Hazelwood fire chief Jim Matthies to talk about himself is like pulling teeth. Though he’s very humble, he’s had an impressive career. Matthies plans to retire at the end of this month after serving the Hazelwood community for the past 26 years.
While he’s accomplished a lot during his years with the Hazelwood Fire Department, Matthies said that the employees are what make the department what it is.
“The chief can only do with the department what the employees are willing to buy into,” he said. “We’ve come a long way in this department, and I think we stand out in the area. I don’t blow my own horn too well.”
CLIMBING THE RANKS
Matthies has been in fire service for 42 years. After growing up in a the suburbs of Chicago and spending four years in the U.S. Air Force, he served 11 years with a fire department just outside of Chicago in Harvey, Ill. He also served as an arson investigator and worked in the local detective bureau on his days off.
“Back in Illinois when I started, there really were no requirements for fire academies or anything,” he said. “You learned on the job.”
He said that he became a paramedic while he was in Illinois, and during his time as an arson investigator also became certified as a police officer.
“I did both jobs for about eight years, and from there I worked and went to school part time,” Matthies said. “I got my master's in management from Maryville University and bachelor's in fire service administration from Western Illinois University.”
Matthies said he also attended the executive fire officer’s school at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD. He would physically attend two weeks each year for four years.
After serving in Illinois, Matthies headed to Blue Springs, MO, where he served the Central Jackson County Fire Protection District for five years. Finally, he settled in Hazelwood, where he’s served with the for the past 26 years—nearly 18 of them as Hazelwood’s fire chief.
During that time, Matthies said the department has done something new every year to improve its service to the community. For example, he said the department started the ambulance service and put paramedics on the fire trucks.
“All of our people that are hired now on the fire trucks are paramedics, most everybody is an EMT,” Matthies said. “Every one of our people are trained in rope rescue, which allows us to assist the industry in our area under the new laws.”
Matthies said that there are laws that require firefighters to have backup when they go into confined spaces, and the rope rescue training serves as adequate support under the laws. He said the department has also upgraded its equipment during his time as chief.
“We’ve gone to the total quint concept, meaning that all of our fire trucks have hoses, ladders, aerial ladders, pumps and water,” he said. “This is adverse to a normal fire truck which just has water, a pump and some hoses.”
Matthies said that the Hazelwood Fire Department is a fantastic department and reiterated it’s really the employees who make it that way.
“There are so many instances where I saw fellow firefighters be heroes that you really can’t pinpoint just one,” he said. “You don’t brag about it. You just do your job.”
Matthies isn’t the kind of fire chief who just sits in his office and sends orders out to his employees—he said he has worked in just about every job in the fire department.
“I’ve been a driver, an inspector, an investigator, a line officer, a staff officer, a paramedic and an ambulance driver…and of course, a chief,” he said. “I’ve worked it all.”
During the bulk of his career in Hazelwood co-workers have turned into friends. At the June 15 Hazelwood City Council meeting one of those friends, Hazelwood city attorney Kevin O'Keefe, gave Matthies his final sendoff.
"I’ve been designated as the speaker to acknowledge and thank Chief Matthies for his service to the city at this, his last meeting as chief," O'Keefe said. "I want to express my appreciation for his friendship and working with him as a colleague for a very long time. Best Wishes to you."
Long time friend and colleague Edwin Carlstrom, Hazelwood's city manager, first announced Matthies retirement in May.
"He asked to come over and meet me in my room to talk. He had a letter in his hand and told me he wanted to retire at the end of June,” Carlstrom said during the May 4 Hazelwood City Council meeting. “It’s always hard for me as the city manager to lose quality people that have been by my side since I’ve been here.
"I know I’m going to miss Jim, but I also know there is a time in everyone’s life where they have to make personal decisions, and I know he and Debbie will enjoy retirement."
LIVING THE DREAM
Matthies said that he and his wife Debbie have plans to move to their “little retirement home” outside of Lake Saint Louis.
“My wife is also retiring and we are going to spend six months evaluating what we want to do with the rest of our lives,” he said. “We will make decisions some time around the first of the year on what direction we want to go.”
He said that after his long and busy career, it’s going to be hard to slow down.
“You spend your entire life working in public service, and it’s kind of hard just to quit,” Matthies said. “But maybe a different direction would be good.”