LAKE CITY, Fla. — Ed Sommers remembers the call.
His younger brother James called him more than 20 years ago to tell him that he was going to become a firefighter.
The banter soon began between brothers, one an officer with a sheriff’s office in South Florida and the other a firefighter in North Florida.
On Aug. 6, James Sommers once again called his brother just to chat and catch up.
Later that night, James Sommers — Suwannee County’s fire chief and public safety director — was killed in a motorcycle crash. He was 40.
“I’m going to miss those phone calls,” Ed Sommers said in his eulogy Tuesday at Christ Central Ministries Church in Lake City. “They were great.”
With James Sommers, it was always about the call.
And he always answered it, whether it was a call for service from Suwannee County Fire Rescue during an emergency, or a call from an agency needing assistance with an event or fundraiser.
Eddie Hand, a friend of Sommers since they attended fire school together in the late 1990s and the county’s assistant fire chief, said Sommers also told people that they would find a way to get it done, sometimes to the chagrin of his employees.
“But it was always the greatest thing in the world whenever you saw the impact it made on the community and all the things that we did,” Hand said in his remarks at the funeral.
Still, Sommers’ biggest impact on the community came through his work as the head of Fire Rescue, continuously elevating the service the department provided.
Ricky Gamble, the chairman of the Suwannee County Board of County Commissioners, said Sommers routinely brought new, bold ideas to the board for ways to improve SCFR.
And when the board wouldn’t commit to the cost, Sommers would go back and find a way to make it happen for less.
“Nobody can look at the department from seven years ago to today and say that it’s not 100 percent better than it was when James Sommers took office or took that position as chief,” Gamble said in his eulogy, adding that Sommers’ pushing made him a better commissioner and he hoped he, in turn, helped make Sommers a better chief.
Ed Sommers said during their phone calls, they often talked about ways to improve with James Sommers bouncing ideas off of him or asking how certain aspects were handled in larger communities.
But Ed Sommers said seeing his brother and staff answer the call during the flooding aftermath of Tropical Storm Debbie just after his brother became the interim chief was something to behold.
“I was actually amazed with the things he was coming up with to help the community with the limited resources he had at the time,” his brother said.
Through time and effort as well as his vision, Sommers started getting more and more resources for his department. The fire station in Wellborn was completed after he became chief. Additional employees were added as well as equipment, including three new trucks purchased last year.
“When James came in … he had a vision of where he wanted this department to go,” Hand said. “He was well on his way to making that vision a reality.
“We can not replace James in any way. But I know we can continue his vision and I can promise you that we will and we will get this done.” That vision is part of why Gamble said he believes one of the best accomplishments he’s made in the seven years he has served as a county commissioner came in his very first meeting, back in November 2012. That was when Jason Bashaw, another commissioner that had just been elected and sworn into office, told the board that they needed to go ahead and make Sommers the permanent chief, to remove the interim title.
They did by a 5-0 vote.
“Suwannee County has a huge void right now,” Gamble said. “His family does. All of us do. He was a special individual. To his family, as a county, we offer our condolences, we offer our love, we’ll never be able to fill James’ shoes.
“James, Jamie, Chief Sommers, on behalf of a grateful county, thank you for your service, thank you for a job well done.”
That grateful county lined one side of the service at the City of Live Oak Cemetery on Tuesday afternoon with hundreds of uniformed personnel lining the other when one final call was made for Sommers last week.
Followed by the ringing of the bell, signaling his end of his service.
“Chief, we love you and we have it from here,” Hand said.