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AFD honors former firefighter

Photo by Pete Skiba

Photo by Pete Skiba

ALBANY, Ga. -- There are three flags flown on the pole in front of the Albany Fire Department Station No. 1. Only one is lowered to half-staff when a firefighter dies.

The battalion flag flies at half-staff today until after the burial of Robert E. Lee, 83, of Albany. He served in the fire department from 1948 until 1983. He retired as a battalion chief, and as an example.

Of the three flags -- the American flag, the Georgia state flag and the fire department's battalion flag -- the battalion flag is lowered to honor a deceased member of the battalion.

Flag etiquette requires an order from the president to lower the American flag. A similar order would be expected to lower the state flag in front of the station at 320 N. Jackson St.

"We lower the battalion flag when we hear of the death," said fire Chief James Carswell. "We don't raise it again until the burial is over."

The battalion flag flies at half-staff today until after the burial of Lee.

"Most of the guys we have in the department today don't realize that we are the aggressive firefighters we are today because of him," Carswell said. "We go into every building and look for survivors like we do because of Bob (Lee). He set the standard for a very aggressive department."

During Lee's era in the department there were no significant safety apparatus for firefighters. There were no fire resistant hoods, breathing masks and other fire resistant turn-out gear for them to wear.

The firefighters of that era wore canvas coats, more suitable to keeping water off them than flames. Lee could be found in the thick of the smoke, flames and action as a true smoke eater, his friends recall.

"That's what they used to call us back then, smoke eaters," said Ron Rowe Sr., a retired firefighter who served with Lee. "We didn't have any masks or breathing apparatus. And Lee led us in. I think he was the best battalion chief I worked with in the AFD."

Carswell said that firefighters in Lee's era ran into burning buildings until their earlobes blistered. When their ears and necks blistered they knew they had got in close enough to seriously quash the fire.

Today's firefighters might have the protections, Carswell said, but their tradition remains to aggressively find survivors and fight the fire. It is all thanks to Lee and others of his era who led the way.

Firefighters will turn out today to honor Lee at Byne Memorial Baptist Church where family will greet friends at 10 a.m. There will be a last call at Floral Memory Gardens after the 11 a.m. church service.

"The family wanted us to keep it simple," said Deputy Fire Chief Ron Rowe Jr. "The last call will be the tones we receive on our cell phones that tell us to report to a fire. We'll get the call and Lee will be dispatched with the recognition of his last call."