COLUMBIA — Charles Witt put on his dancing shoes in the rest area of Studio B on Falling Leaf Lane in southeast Columbia. Despite the unusual surroundings, he couldn't help but wear his fire chief's hat.
"Oh, this place has a fire extinguisher behind the TV," he said as a couple of dancing partners practiced in the nearby ballroom. "The fire chief is glad to see that."
After working in fire service for 36 years and for one year as Columbia's fire chief, Witt has a new name: Mr. Safety. And now, Mr. Safety is stepping into another adventure: dancing. He's a competitor in "Dancing with the Missouri Stars" this year.
Although Witt is well-versed when it comes to the business of firefighting, he's a novice at dancing. During his second lesson, the neophyte dancer practiced some steps as he tried to become accustomed to the new black dancing shoes. He tried wearing tennis shoes during his first practice, but that didn't work out well.
"I didn't even know where to buy those dancing shoes," he said. He and his wife, Nancy Smarr-Witt, finally drove to St. Louis to find a pair.
At Studio B, wearing kakhi shorts and a loose-fitting orange T-shirt, he tried to follow the lead of his expert partner, Lila Shultz, as country-western music blared over the speakers.
"Left, toe, heel," Mr. Safety mumbled over and over. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead and dampened his short grayish hair.
It wasn't easy for the beginner to keep his balance while the music played rapidly. He kept his head down to watch the position of his feet and slowly practiced spinning Schultz on cue.
Witt admitted that dancing makes him nervous. "I'm trying to learn steps," he said.
Until now, Witt said he hadn't ever thought about dancing, let alone joining a dance contest.
"My wife and my friends twisted my hands to do it," he said. "But now I'd like to do it for my community and to be involved."
Witt has dedicated himself to community service since he volunteered as a junior firefighter at age 14. A friend had already joined the ranks of junior firefighters and was showing off. That prompted Witt to join up, too, and firefighting has been the love of his life ever since.
Being a junior firefighter required learning skills and lots of training. The teen firefighting corps put out only natural wildfires. Young Witt thought his junior firefighter experience was cool, especially as a high school student.
"When you were in high school and they called out your name to report to the principal's office, normally that means you are in trouble," Witt said. But when the principal summoned the junior firefighters and the fire truck came to pick them up, they felt like big shots.
"You can imagine being in high school, and all your high school mates saw you leave on a fire truck, how cool that is," Witt said.
Witt officially began his full firefighting career at 18, and he was able to go into burning buildings to save people. The memory of running into a burning building for the first time remains fresh.
"I do remember the thrill and rush and how much fun it was to go into a burning building for that first time, but I also remember how scary it was," Witt said.
Firefighters can't shrink in the face of danger, though. That's why Witt said it's important that they keep up with the best training so they can rely on each other for protection. Although Witt now spends much of his work time attending meetings and doing administrative work, he still understands the challenges his staff faces every day.
To encourage communication among Columbia Fire Department employees, Witt spends three days every year meeting and talking with each Fire Department member. Firefighter Brian Wattenbarger, who staffs the department's Sutphen Snozzle at Fire Station No. 1, said the communication is effective.
"He is definitely better with the communication of letting us know what's going on with the overall picture, what goals we are looking toward and what changes we are trying to make," Wattenbarger said.
Witt said firefighting is the best career he can imagine.
"I went for a year in my life that no matter where I slept, either at home, which was the fire station, or where I work, which was the fire station, I had a fire truck out at my door," Witt said during an interview in his office, a fire boot hanging from a shelf behind him.
Witt's promotion to fire chief is the highlight of his 36-year career. He proudly remembers the date: March 6, 2011. His family and friends had a big party that night after then-City Manager Bill Watkins released the exciting news. They raised glasses of champagne to toast the new fire chief.
The news actually came to his family and friends before it came to Witt. Smarr-Witt recalled receiving a text from someone telling her the good news. Witt was in a college class at the time.
"I was talking to my sister-in-law, and I said 'Oh, Chuck got promoted!'" Smarr-Witt said. The news soon reached the fire station, and Witt's family cried with excitement even before the news reached him.
Smarr-Witt was thrilled for her husband. "When you're with someone for 22 years, and you've seen their dream, and for them to fill their dream and make it finally happen, it's just the most incredible feeling."
Although Witt is humble about his job, he's also ambitious. He noted that the Fire Department has had zero fire-related fatalities in the past two years, and he's confident he and his staff can keep that trend going.
Still, Witt hopes his department can continue to improve service to Columbia. Better technology, such as a new Web education program, is one example of that effort. Lt. Stephen Potter of Station No. 1 spoke highly of the application.
"We can learn right here in the fire station instead of going down to the training academy, which makes our response time much quicker," Potter said. "What's being done on the Web is recorded, so once we get done with our call we can come back and just catch the part that we missed instead of missing the whole thing."
The Fire Department also is dealing with budget issues. Witt and others are looking for ways to save money — such as less expensive uniforms — while also improving equipment and training.
Witt said he believes the Fire Department is the best in the state of Missouri — and perhaps among the best in the nation.
Firefighting isn't the only love of Witt's life. His greatest joy is his marriage to Smarr-Witt and their two sons, Brandon and Patrick Witt.
Witt and his wife met at a March of Dimes Bids for Bachelors while Smarr-Witt was helping with the event. One of her firefighter friends brought Witt to the party after the fundraiser.
After a few weeks, Witt began sending her roses and taking her to concerts. The romance led to engagement and then marriage.
"I had the best wedding in the world," Smarr-Witt said.
Maintaining a marriage to a firefighter is difficult, though. As proud of the fire chief as she is, Smarr-Witt also dealt with unusual pressures even as she spent 14 years running her home-based business, Verifact Inc., and taking care of the children.
"It's hard on a relationship when they're working 24-hour shifts and you have young children," said Smarr-Witt, who now is a co-owner of Adams and Witt Property Professionals, a property management company.
Last year, when the big snow attacked Columbia, Witt was forced to leave his family for his job.
"He was gone for four days. I was as stuck as everybody in town. He stayed at the fire station," Smarr-Witt said. "He was there for four days with doing all of the calls and making sure everything was being taken care of."
The family also has to face the potential danger in Witt's job. Every time her husband went out to respond to calls, it was a struggle for Smarr-Witt.
"Your heart aches for them, you know. My heart aches for him, my heart aches for all the Fire Department, the men and women in the Fire Department when they have to go and run the gruesome scenes and fight the fires."
But the Witt family has adjusted well. Smarr-Witt said her boys have a lot of respect for their father, and they often call their parents for advice. Their youngest son, Patrick, also wants to be a firefighter. He's attending Moberly Area Community College, then hopes to finish his degree at MU.
"It takes two in the marriage to make it work," Smarr-Witt said. Their secrets are patience, understanding and support. All the Witts treat the Fire Department as their second family.
When Witt was promoted to fire chief, the new job came with an extra requirement that Witt earn a bachelor's degree. He's taking online courses at Missouri Southern University from time to time. He said it's hard to run a large organization like the Fire Department and go to college at the same time. But he said it's much harder to be a fire chief than a student.
The family enjoys golf and cooking in their spare time, and Smarr-Witt takes care of most of the housework. Although Witt always claims he runs everything in the house, such as the vacuum and dishwasher, his wife disagrees: "You don't even know how to turn them on."
Dancing a family project
The whole family is now working together for Dancing with the Missouri Stars. The contest is held every year to raise money for Missouri Contemporary Ballet.
Joining the contest and dancing are completely out of Witt's character. Brandon and Patrick Witt didn't believe it at first and laughed at the prospect. But now the family and their friends are supportive.
For the contest, Witt is in charge of dancing and Smarr-Witt is in charge of raising money. The couple is determined to win, and there are two ways to do so.
"One is with talent, the other is to raise the most money, and I decided to raise the most money," Witt said.
Smarr-Witt videotapes every dancing class Witt attends, and the fire chief has to practice dancing every day when he gets home.
Shultz, his dancing partner, said Witt is a fast learner and is making great progress. Witt, however, said Shultz is the real star on the team.
Witt's coworkers are looking forward to seeing him dance. Division Chief Darrin Arends of Station No. 1 said it's interesting to see the fire chief compete because it shows a different side of him. It was also another way for the Fire Department to interact with the community and promote the department's image, Arends said.
Thirty-six years in firefighting has brought Mr. Safety more than a nickname. It has given him a life he's dreamed about since he was 14: A job that's exciting, that allows him to contribute to the public and that has enabled him to raise a family.
His passion hasn't faded with the years.
"I am as excited today to come to work as I was the first time that I went to the training at the age of 14."