Ex-JCFD Chief Souder speaks about allegations and retirement

Thomas Wilson

   Former chief of the Johnson City Fire Department, Paul Souder, is speaking publicly for the first time since being cleared of sexual harassment charges made by a fellow firefighter that prompted two internal investigations by City of Johnson City officials.
   Souder spoke to the Star on Wednesday regarding his retirement as Johnson City fire chief and his years of service with the fire department.
   "Until this time, I have not responded publicly to allegations made against me, and I will still not validate them with comment," Souder said. "I will state that two complete investigations were done, and the allegations were ruled to be unfounded."
   Souder thanked those who know him and those who have voiced their support for him. "I thank you and would like you to know I value your friendship," he said.
   Souder was cleared for the second time in May of the sexual harassment allegations made against him by the firefighter who filed the complaint.
   City officials announced earlier this year that Souder would retire from the JCFD effective in July. He is expected to receive a gold watch at the city's commission meeting tonight to commemorate his years of service.
   "During my employment with the JCFD, I have fought in every major fire in Johnson City and have gone to surrounding cities to help fight their major fires," Souder stated. "I have saved lives and property. I have rescued numerous firemen from burning structures -- including some of those who have made false allegations against me."
   Born and raised in Elizabethton, Souder spent 4 1/2 years with the Elizabethton Fire Department before he was hired as a firefighter with the Johnson City department. He spent 29 years with the JCFD, including the last five years as department chief.
   Souder acknowledged that he had been suspended by the Johnson City fire department early in his career for an incident of "horseplay", not sexual harassment.
   "I am who I am," said Souder. "I make no excuses for my behavior because none are needed. Those who have made the allegations know the truth."
   Souder also said horseplay and humor were hardly new ideas to firemen and policemen engaged in stressful occupations. "Horsing around occurs in every fire department, police department, and locker room in the country and will continue," he said, "but when it is time to get serious and respond to a call, the joking is over, and it's all business."
   As chief, Souder said he implemented improvements to each city fire station, upgrading equipment and training facilities, and developing educational programs and life-saving tools.
   The Johnson City Fire Department earned the highest honor a fire department could receive from the Tennessee Municipal League during his term as chief, Souder stated.
   He also said he "hired new firemen and made promotions with input from officers and never missed an important staff, budget, or (city) commission meeting."
   The ex-chief also said he instituted stringent training requirements "because I never wanted to tell a family their loved one had been seriously injured or died because of a lack of essential information or technique. With change comes resentment and resistance," said Souder.
   A graduate of Elizabethton High School, Souder spent three years in the military prior to joining the Elizabethton Fire Department.
   Souder stated that from the beginning of his career as a fireman to the rank of fire chief he had served the taxpayers of Johnson City with "pride and to the best of (his) ability". He also said he was thankful for the opportunity to have done so.
   "During my time with the fire department, I only missed three days due to illness, and I'm thankful for my excellent health," said Souder. "I am enjoying my retirement and accomplishing things in my personal life that were put on hold because of the time I dedicated to the city."
   The allegations and investigations had not embittered him, said Souder, who continues to reside in Carter County.
   "I'm doing what I want to do now," he said. "The only person I report to now is myself."
   He said one goal he has planned is to trace the path of the Mississippi River from Minnesota to New Orleans with his children and grandchildren.
   "I will continue to be the same person I have always been, and my friends know that. I will continue to support my church and community, help feed the homeless, contribute time to charitable causes, donate blood, and offer my assistance to persons in need," he said. "My faith, character, and sense of humor will continue to sustain me as I live out my life."