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‘There was no one who could’ve held him back’

Remembering Fire Captain Rodney C. Dodson – there will never be another one like him


Captain Dodson passed away on April 6, 2020, at the age of 49.

Photo/Ben Thompson

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I still don’t know how Captain Dodson knew what was about to happen, but I’ll never forget it.

The small orange glow just above my head, followed by the sound of his footsteps running toward me. He pushed me to the ground, landing on top of me half a second before the entire room filled with a burst of flame.

We had been sent in to perform a search with a tagline. The second crew, Engine 14, was on a hoseline for suppression.

Stepping into the smoke that night, we had gone right. They had gone left.

Engine 14 called a mayday. The RIT team was activated, and the battalion chief called for an evacuation.

I pulled the tagline tight and said, “Cap, we gotta go!”

He grabbed me by the front of my coat and shouted, “We’re not going anywhere without Engine 14!”

It only lasted a few minutes, and in the end, Engine 14 found their lost crewmember, and we all walked out together without anyone getting hurt.

When I look back on my career, that night will always remain as one of my proudest moments – because I can say that I didn’t run out of a structure fire that got Captain Rodney Dodson excited.

The man was fearless. During his career, Captain Dodson had gotten out of many tight spots that probably should have killed him.

But in the end, it was his decisions away from the fire department that would cost him his life, leaving behind hundreds of firefighters, both young and old, with stories that will be told over kitchen tables for years to come – and leaving many who were closest to him with a hurt that we all saw coming but could do nothing to stop.

Not your typical fire captain

Captain Dodson was the kind of man who bored easily. So when there wasn’t any danger to run into at work, he went out and found his own trouble, making an eclectic array of friends along the way.

If COVID-19 not been in the way and there had been a funeral procession, I imagine that it would have been one of the strangest ever seen.

There would have been his enormous family followed by hundreds of uniformed firefighters, members of a church congregation, bikers, pickup trucks and bagpipes.

The man could charm anyone. And he was intelligent enough to have made a good run on the show Jeopardy. But the places he went made him feel it was necessary to carry around a pair of brass knuckles in his back pocket.

I can still see them now, resting on the top cover of his copy of “The History of Christianity” on the nightstand inside the officer’s quarters.

He used all forms of tobacco based on his mood. Cigarettes when he was feeling reckless, cigars when he was happy, a pipe when he was feeling fatherly, but most of the time, he dipped tobacco from cheap cans bought in bulk from the tobacco outlet.

He wasn’t in best shape. There were times when the buttons on his dress shirt had to hang on for dear life. But he rarely wore it anyway.

His uniform around the station typically consisted of a white v-neck T-shirt, a pair of cut-off scrub shorts and flip-flops. He’d put on his bunker pants and a fire department ball cap to make a call, well, sometimes.

People wonder how he got away with it and still keep his job.

To call Captain Dodson charismatic would be an understatement. He could have just as easily been a politician. He was constantly being watched over by the people who loved him.

But what it really came down to was this: When it counted, he was just that good.

A unique career

I heard a chief say one time that he’d rather have a firefighter he had to hold back rather than one he had to put his boot to his butt for him to go inside a structure fire.

Dodson was definitely one you had to hold back.

Early in his career, he made a name for himself for being fearless and calm under pressure. Working on Birmingham’s west side among firefighters who have become department legends, Dodson learned from some of the best. And he earned himself a spot among them.

Back in the 90s, the area he was assigned to was the same that the U.S. military would send their pararescue troops to learn how to treat gunshot wounds.

It was not uncommon to hear the sound of a spraying AK-47 or to see the black plume of a structure fire rising up over the treetops.

From there, Dodson earned himself a spot on the department’s first technical rescue team. It was on this team that he nearly drowned after being lowered into a hole in search of a little girl who had been washed away by storm water.

Midway through his career, Dodson became a paramedic and was promoted to lieutenant. It was around this time that his career took a strange turn.

Dodson was fired for failing a drug test.

During his legal battle, which he would eventually win based on a defense that a strange tea he bought at a Latin Culture Festival was responsible, he was hospitalized from an explosion.

While he was off, he had taken a job as a hazmat technician that would clean up meth labs. He agitated a barrel of chemicals to the point that it exploded. He credited the steel lid that broke the bones of his face with saving him from fatal burns.

Where both incidents would have ended most careers, Dodson got his job back, and received back pay and a large settlement for the explosion. This only added to Dodson’s legend of invincibility – and ultimately may have led to his demise.

My time with the man

I met Dodson after he had returned to work. I was a rookie assigned to Fire Station 20, and he was on the brink of being promoted as the station’s new captain.

It only lasted three years before I was promoted and shipped off to the other side of town. But it was the years spent at 20 that would shape my career.

Outside of being fearless, Dodson was unusually kind to the citizens, especially during those calls that many firefighters might have deemed as a nuisance.

If someone called because they were hungry, Dodson would make him a sandwich. If an elderly woman called because she was lonely, Dodson would sing her a song and order the rest of us to join him.

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine ….”

He could always leave a scene with a smile, because there were no barriers to his kindness. If a citizen needed help, no matter how simple or ridiculous, he did it. And as much as I hoped to someday be as great on the fire scene as he, it has been by emulating these other types of moments that have defined my career.

He showed me that being a firefighter carries a great power in the community. And that the worse thing we could do is to be greedy with it.

Captain Dodson understood that within every moment we spend in uniform lies the potential to make someone’s day better than it was. I got to see him realize that potential many times in some unusual and unique ways. For that, I will be forever grateful.

Life away from the fire department

Even when we worked together, what he did between shifts was a mystery. One morning he might come in wearing a pair of overalls telling stories of making moonshine in the woods. Then the next shift he’d come in with his hair neatly gelled wearing a sweater from J.Crew.

One morning he walked in with a fresh stab wound to his leg and had one of the guys wrap it up with some rolled gauze before sliding into uniform.

Back then we knew he was always getting into some kind of trouble away from work. But he’d come back in and do his 24 hours just like the rest of us, so we didn’t worry. It was just Dodson being Dodson.

It was when he left the department that we began to worry, like when stories started to drift in of drug use or a recent mug shot would appear online.

During that time, I would receive an occasional call or random text message from him. I would secretly pray that he didn’t ask me to do something that would test my loyalty. It was the first time since I had known him that Captain Dodson was heading into a fire where no one would follow.

And there was no one who could’ve held him back.

So when he passed away earlier this month at the young age of 49, no one was surprised. It was that he died no one could believe. After everything he’d walked away from, we didn’t know that he could.

Maybe it had all been luck. Or maybe he just always had the right one looking out for him when he needed it most.

I will not pretend that Captain Dodson was perfect. And I think he would agree.

The pain he caused those who loved him most, his family, is immeasurable. I cannot imagine what he has put them through.

But in the fire service, we measure a man by what he does after the tones go off – when we go out into the night and stand shoulder to shoulder to face some of the worst moments the world has to offer.

So today, as my brother and sisters stand together to face this moment, this horrible moment, we ask that the world remember Captain Rodney C. Dodson for what he was to us, a friend, a captain and a damn good firefighter.

Ben Thompson is a battalion chief in Birmingham, Alabama. In 2016, Thompson developed his department’s first mobile integrated health (MIH) program and shared his experiences from building the program at TEDxBirmingham. Thompson was the recipient of the 2016 Emergency Medical Service Provider of the Year Award and the 2018 Joe E. Acker Award for Innovation in Emergency Medical Services, both in Jefferson County, Alabama. He has a bachelor’s degree from Athens State University in Alabama and is a licensed paramedic. Connect with Thompson through his website