Clayton’s Very First Full-Time Firefighter Retires

CLAYTON – The Town of Clayton is saying goodbye to a devoted employee who has protected and supported the community for three decades. Deputy Fire Chief Tony Atkinson officially retires Saturday, June 1. “I’ll miss it… I will,” he said. “It’s a little sad, a little happy. You can’t just walk away from something like that after all these years. I knew this day was coming.”

Administrators and colleagues gathered at the Clayton Fire Department – Station 1 (325 West Horne St.) on Friday, May 31, to celebrate Atkinson’s 30-year career and wish him well as he starts a new life chapter.

“I am very proud of the brotherhood we shared in the fire service and to have the opportunity to recognize Tony for this significant milestone,” said Deputy Town Manager and former Fire Chief Lee Barbee. “He has made an indelible mark on our fire department and community. I feel honored to have known and worked alongside Tony for so many years. Together, we formed a formidable team and navigated many changes over the years. He’s an inspiration to us all, earning the respect of the entire community. We are profoundly grateful for his unwavering commitment, drive, and spirit in protecting our Town and fostering positive change.”

Initially, Atkinson started working with the Town’s Electric Department as a Ground Worker in 1994. The position aligned well with his 20 years of service in the US Navy where he focused on electrical systems, maintenance, equipment, and troubleshooting. It was also an opportunity for Atkinson to leave San Diego and come back home.

“I grew up here when it was a little town – still had dirt roads – went to Cooper Elementary, and graduated from Clayton High School,” said Atkinson. “When I retired from the Navy, my family was still here. It was wonderful… peaceful and quiet.”

Tony Atkinson during the early 2000s era with the Clayton Fire Department.

Six months into his new role, Atkinson began volunteering with the Clayton Fire Department, which was in the old Town Hall building (231 East Second St.), and eventually he became their first full-time hire. Since then, Atkinson has held various positions from Fire Supervisor and Fire Marshal. In 2015, he was promoted to the rank of Deputy Fire Chief, while still retaining his Fire Marshal responsibilities.

“Over the years, I hope people have grown to better understand the Clayton Fire Department and what it does,” said Atkinson. “When I first started out, I used to go to schools, senior homes, and churches to do fire prevention and fire education. Some people think that we just come to work and hang around the station, watch TV, and play basketball. They really don’t see what happens all night, late in the night, getting up in the middle of the night and running calls to go take care of their neighbors and loved ones.”

Atkinson recognized some challenges of the job, such as navigating stressful situations and staying on top of varying safety protocols. “You’re working with a group of people,” said Atkinson. “It’s one team. You have different attitudes, different suggestions. You must learn to work with each other. It’s a life-changing event as far as responses, things you see that you never thought you would see or have to deal with. It’s a very important job, a fantastic job, and that’s what I would tell anybody. If that’s what you passion is, serving the community and responding to or taking care of people, this is it.”

When reflecting on his time with the Town, Atkinson referenced two defining moments. The first one was when a single-engine plane crashed into McCall’s BBQ and Seafood Restaurant off US Highway 70 West in 2016. “We were training that day when it came on the radio that a plane flew into a building,” said Atkinson. “We were like, ‘No, that’s not what she said.’ We kept listening, and yeah, that was it. That was a moment for Clayton. I remember that well.” The pilot died as a result of the accident, and the building sustained damage.

Atkinson’s other defining moment confirmed the deep bond that connects the men and women who work alongside each other at the Clayton Fire Department. He reflected on the devastating loss of Jason Dean, a 42-year-old firefighter who died from COVID-19 in 2020. Dean was also a Clayton High School graduate and served three years in the US Army before pivoting into fire service.

Deputy Fire Chief Tony Atkinson (right) gathers with his colleagues (from left) Battalion Chief Matt Sutphin and Deputy Town Manager Lee Barbee during a controlled burn.

As the Town changes and continues to grow, so does the Clayton Fire Department, to keep up with the evolving needs of the community. Atkinson offered some parting words of wisdom to his comrades, “I’m working on that one… I said, ‘Work smart. Have fun. And treat everybody nicely.’ That would be me because I try to do that. I’m a jokester. They know what my job is, and when I come out, I don’t come out as the Fire Marshal. First, I stand there and talk to you. ‘How was your weekend?’ Make you feel at ease. Because when I first started here, I was the bad guy. Here comes the Fire Marshal. Everybody scatters… until they got to know why I was doing this job. It’s the safety of you, your business, and your customers.”

“In my short time working with Tony, I have observed his unwavering dedication to our community’s safety,” said Fire Chief David Ranes. “Tony is deeply committed to collaborating with both citizens and business owners to reduce the incidence of fires, injuries, and fatalities. His approach to administering the fire code is both appropriate and consistent, ensuring that all safety standards are met without compromise. Tony understands the importance of first building relationships and then application of the fire code. His expertise and steadfast commitment make him an invaluable asset to our team and our community.”

People may still be able to catch Atkinson around the Town at some of Clayton’s most-loved, annual events, such as the Independence Day Fireworks and Square-to-Square Street Festival or Harvest Festival. “We used to go over to the park and take our truck, and we’d cook out for the guys,” said Atkinson. “Meet and greet the kids. Those were fun times.”

There will also be time for relaxation and travel with Atkinson’s family and US Navy buddies. He’s still in contact with 10 of them. They call each other twice a month and take a trip every six months.

As for the Clayton Fire Department, it will always hold a special place in Atkinson’s heart. “The people… always the people. I’ll miss the job too but the people. I’ve had a good run here. Yeah, I’ll see them. They’re not going to get rid of me that easily. I’ll come back and see them… be around if they need me.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Tony, it is in your blood. It will always be in your blood. Been out of the FDNY for 40 years and it still is in my blood. All firefighters will always be your brothers and sisters and will always be your family. Deputy Fire Chief Tony Atkinson, wishing you the very best in your retirement and enjoy doing the honey-do-list. Thank you for your service and may God Bless you.

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