I’ve never had the pleasure of knowing him personally, but by most accounts former Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas seems to be a heck of a guy.

Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Thomas became a firefighter immediately after graduating high school and won the respect of his peers and the gratitude of his city with over three decades of service. “He’s a gentleman, a hard worker, and I think he gave the citizens of Charleston 100 percent,” said former County Council member Maurice Washington. Washington’s admiration for Thomas, like that of many Charlestonians, shows.

But even the best of men can make mistakes. As the reports continue to be released and the details become clearer concerning the Sofa Super Store tragedy, mounting criticism against not only Thomas, but Mayor Joe Riley, seem to be not only warranted, but necessary and important, if firefighters are to be equipped to do their jobs effectively in the future. I am not a firefighter and would never be arrogant enough to tell them how to do their jobs. But many firefighters both locally and across the nationwide are now questioning how Thomas did his job. They should be heard.

As it became increasingly clear that our war in Iraq was going horribly wrong, instead of listening to the experts, President George W. Bush began burying or demoting his critics. Men like Adm. William Fallon and Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez were completely ignored, so that the president could save face. To this day, Bush surrounds himself with yes-men, most of whom have little to no military experience.

Riley cannot afford to ignore the experts when it comes to his city’s fire department. The stakes are simply too high and certainly the lives of Charleston’s finest are more important than the mayor saving face. He should listen to the experts, the firefighters themselves.

Over the past two weeks, we have all seen and heard from Thomas’ defenders, who were saddened by the fire chief’s resignation. This is only natural as Thomas’ Charleston roots run deep, and the chief no doubt has friends aplenty. But it is important to separate the political from the personal and the professional from the emotional.

For example, Monique Duffy, co-owner of Mimi’s Creekside, told The Post and Courier, “We put (a supportive sign) up because we’ve known Chief Rusty and his family for years … and we felt that until all the facts were in, we wanted to show our support.”

While I’m not certain how Duffy feels about Thomas’ resignation, it is clear she admires him. Duffy might also admire some of the people on her wait staff, but if they made too many mistakes, she would probably be forced to let them go. As a matter of good business, she must separate the professional from the emotional. In fact, many business owners will not hire friends or relatives precisely because they cannot separate the two.

When The Morning Buzz‘s Richard Todd, fire chiefs from other cities, union leaders, or firefighters criticize how the Sofa Super Store tragedy was handled, we are not attacking Rusty Thomas the man. We are assessing the job performance of the local fire chief — someone who should be held accountable, given the gravity of his job and the potential for disaster.

Those who say, “I can’t believe everyone keeps beating up on poor ol’ Rusty Thomas,” are holding his critics to an unreasonable standard they don’t obey themselves. I’ve seen too many waiters and waitresses abused by otherwise kind people over the slightest mistakes to take seriously the notion that the local fire chief is beyond reproach. Those who disagree should never again criticize the car mechanic who does shoddy work, the house painter who chooses the wrong color, or the barber who gives a bad haircut because these people are above criticism since they are “nice people.”

Rusty Thomas is a good man, as evidenced by his stepping down from his post as fire chief. It was the right thing to do. Now it’s important for the public to continue to question our leaders and keep the pressure on to replace Thomas with another good man — but more importantly a good fire chief.

Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the “Morning Buzz with Richard Todd” on 1250 AM WTMA.