‘My role as fire chief has never felt like a job’
Reflecting on my time as chief and the honor of being the IAFC’s 2022 Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year
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By Marshall Turbeville
It was July 2022. I received a message that I needed to call another fire chief about confidential information. The first thought that raced through my mind was to prepare for bad news. It wasn’t. Rather, this is how I learned I had not only been nominated for but selected as the IAFC’s 2022 Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year Award.
The moment caught me off guard and made me think about why I was nominated. I soon learned that my nomination was largely driven by community members, which I believe to be the highest level of recognition.
The experience also prompted me to reflect on my years as a fire chief.
Over the past several years, my focus has changed from being primarily response-centered to being prevention and preparedness-centered. As a firefighter, I was focused on emergency response and, unfortunately, often discredited the power of prevention and preparedness.
My turning point was the night of Oct. 8, 2017. This was the night that several wildfires ignited under windy conditions and ultimately burned through a large portion of Sonoma County, California, destroying homes and killing 22 individuals. Following these wildfires, a grassroots effort of neighbors working with neighbors, now called Communities Organized to Prepare for Emergencies (COPE), was launched. This group established communication and coordination pathways between residents and public safety agencies. Great improvements have been made, and I think the greatest accomplishment has been that no one has died in large Sonoma County wildfires following the 2017 event. I attribute this to COPE. It turns out, it was the various COPE groups that worked on my nomination with a member of the fire district’s board of directors.
I enjoy helping people. My role as fire chief has never felt like a job. It’s been my passion to serve the community where I was born and raised. This has built trust with the communities that the fire district serves which has allowed me to know many of the residents by name, implement prescribed burning, and submit risk reduction grant applications. I encourage residents to know at least one firefighter by name and to be comfortable visiting their fire station. I constantly recall Chief Alan Brunacini’s articles and presentations that highlighted how fire service “customer service” can be one of the easiest goals we can meet. Just “be nice,” Bruno would say.
Each fire agency is different and must provide the service that best matches its demographics, hazards and risks. The area where I serve is prone to wildfires, and more structures burn from wildfires than from any other cause. The area is also rural with lengthy response times. Fire and emergency services in rural areas depend upon funding, which is often limited, for paid firefighters or the continued commitment of volunteer firefighters. Unless trends change, volunteer firefighters will likely continue to decline. I am grateful for volunteer firefighters and non-firefighter volunteers. I have observed a great number of non-firefighter volunteers become involved in preparedness, prevention and other risk reduction efforts.
My father was a volunteer fire chief. I grew up listening to radios and would sometimes sit in his vehicle during an emergency while he was helping someone. If he was available, there was no hesitation in his response. This motivation has stuck with me, and I still do not like “missing” an emergency response, especially when I know the area and people who may be affected
In fact, it was hard for me to leave my community during the peak of the 2022 summer fire season to accept the Fire Chief of the Year Award at Fire-Rescue International. But I was glad that I was able to make the ceremony, and this reminded me to focus on mentorship in the upcoming years. I see my focus now starting to shift to providing training and experience to the firefighters who will someday be in the role I currently fill.
Awards should be the result of hard work and dedication. This award has provided a reminder to me to stay motivated, keep a positive attitude, know my community, and take care of my employees – good advice for any chief!
About the author
Marshall Turbeville is the fire chief of the Northern Sonoma Fire Protection District in Sonoma County, California.