Va. fire chief recognized for ‘unique commitment’ to safety
Newport News Fire Chief Jeff Johnson received the Alan Brunacini Fire Service Executive Safety Award
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The leader of the city’s fire department recently was recognized for his “unique commitment” to ensuring the health and safety of citizens and his firefighters.
Fire Chief Jeffrey “Jeff” Johnson received the Alan Brunacini Fire Service Executive Safety Award, presented annually by the International Association of Fire Chiefs to department chiefs who go above and beyond in prioritizing fire service health and safety.
Johnson, who has served as the Newport News fire chief since 2019, said he was “humbled” to be honored with this year’s award. Johnson’s 33-year career in emergency medical and fire services has been dedicated to implementing cancer prevention tactics and more comprehensive physical and mental exams for firefighters.
“They assured me plenty of other people were nominated,” Johnson said with a laugh, before adding, “I am humbled that peers recognize I am part of a movement to make things safer and better for firefighters. But, this award is not just for me. It was a team that did this — I did not do all this by myself.”
Johnson was nominated by a former colleague in the Kansas City, Missouri, Fire Department, where he retired as deputy fire chief before joining Newport News. In a statement to the Daily Press, a spokesperson for the International Association of Fire Chiefs said Johnson’s qualifications for the Brunacini Award “are best described” in the nomination letter written by KCFD Deputy Director Richard Gist, who worked alongside Johnson at his former post.
“Chief Johnson is a rare and unique individual whose intelligence, preparation, commitment, and passion for the industry, and specifically for safety and training, is truly inspiring,” the letter reads.
Such attributes, the association said, are the legacy of the award’s namesake — a legacy Johnson is “carrying on through his work.”
Under Johnson’s leadership, the Newport News and Kansas City fire departments adopted the use of two sets of gear for firefighters.
Firefighters have a 9% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14% higher risk of dying from the disease than the general U.S. population, according to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety. This is mainly due to exposure to harmful carcinogens in smoke, which cling to gear long after a fire is extinguished, Johnson said.
“With only one set of gear, as long as they are on duty, they need that gear. The carcinogens continue to build up on the protective clothing they are putting on over and over again,” Johnson said.
The department has also implemented the use of on-scene decontamination wipes to mitigate immediate exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. Just having a fresh change of gear and wiping oneself down on the scene, Johnson said, can significantly reduce a firefighter’s exposure rate.
To ensure any health issues do not go unnoticed, Johnson pushed for Newport News to refer to a higher standard for its comprehensive physical and mental exams — departing from occupational health sources and instead referencing the National Fire Protection Agency.
According to Johnson, the city’s approximately 370 sworn firefighters received the more in-depth exam in April and as a result have caught a few minor medical issues before they became more serious.
“I truly love all my firefighters. I want to them to be safe when they are working and to retire safe and healthy. It is humbling when someone says that is going above and beyond, but I think that is the way we should treat all our people,” Johnson said.