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Safety: Fire marshal who expanded programs retires from Midway
By Charles Swenson
Todd Blomdahl had essential experience when he arrived at Midway Fire Department in 1995. He was a former Navy firefighter who earned civilian certification as an emergency medical technician. And he once sold children’s books.
That made him a natural for the vacancy that opened up a few years later for a fire inspector who would also be responsible for public education. “That was a very easy transition for me,” Blomdahl said.
Now he is making another transition, retiring after 22 years with Midway where he is currently the fire marshal and chief of the division of fire and life safety. “The fire marshal’s position is huge in shaping this community,” Fire Chief Doug Eggiman said. “He’s going to be hard to replace.”
The fire marshal is responsible for enforcing the fire codes. He also investigates fires. In between, it’s the work with education that stands out when Blomdahl looks back at his time with Midway.
When he started as a firefighter-EMT, the big education event was a fire and life safety expo that the department held on a vacant lot in front of the Pawleys Island Plaza. “Now we have almost 30 events and 200 programs,” Blomdahl said. “Thousands of contacts a year.”
They start with lessons for prospective parents in how to use car seats for their newborns and reach to the senior citizens at the Lakes at Litchfield. On Blomdahl’s last trip to Waccamaw Elementary for Fire Safety Week, he realized that some of the teachers were kids when he started out teaching the classes. From pre-K through first grade, students get the same lesson each year. “We want them to get the same exact information so there are no ifs, and or buts,” Blomdahl said. “As they get older, hopefully they won’t make the mistakes we’ve all made.”
The goal of the programs is to reduce injuries and deaths as well as the number of calls that put firefighters at risk.
Midway’s education programs got a boost in 1997 when the staff took a refurbished retired pumper, Engine 4, and turned it into Education 4. That led to the first of five awards the department has received from the S.C. State Association of Fire Chiefs for education programs. “That’s what really changed the fire prevention program here at Midway,” Blomdahl said.
His own firefighter education started in the Navy. He was part of a shipboard damage control team – a “mini-fire station,” he said – and took advanced training. He joined Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire Department as volunteer after moving to the area with his wife Suzann, whom he had met in Myrtle Beach. They moved to Florida, where he had lived since age 11. He and an uncle started a company that ran children’s book fairs.
When the couple moved back to South Carolina, Blomdahl thought he would continue with the book fairs. But he re-upped as a volunteer firefighter and started taking classes offered by Midway. His first paid position was with Murrells Inlet at $14,000 a year. “I made more working at Domino’s Pizza,” Blomdahl said.
After moving to Midway, he became a master firefighter. The fire inspector’s position was better suited to the demands of young children. “I really enjoyed working with the contractors and the local businesses,” he said.
On the education side, he launched a series of trading cards that featured Midway staff and equipment. They had safety lessons printed on the back. The cards were part of a continuing effort to make sure small kids aren’t frightened by firefighters in their full gear.
Another area of education has been slower to catch on: sprinkler systems. Blomdahl was part of the delegation that got residential sprinklers included in national fire codes, but states were able to opt out. “Legislatively, I don’t think it’s going to happen for many years,” he said.
Commercial developers are using them more often. The shopping center that includes Fresh Market has sprinklers because it gives the owner more flexibility in how the space is used, Blomdahl said. “Commercial developers and designers are incorporating them.”
But there is still a perception that they will flood an entire building, an image conveyed in the movies. And they are thought to be expensive. “It depends on who you talk to,” Blomdahl said. “In 20 years, you’ll be able to buy a sprinkler system at Walmart or Amazon.”
In retirement, he plans to help his wife with her online business Carolina Best and Inlet Life, but Blomdahl has a couple of home projects on the list. One is to install a sprinkler system.