Blog: Q&A with retiring Fire Chief R.B. Alley IIIEDITOR’S NOTE: After 40 years as a firefighter, College Station Fire Chief R.B. Alley III retires on Friday, June 28. Chief Alley led the College Station Fire Department since 2005. In a way, he’s the Ted Williams of firefighting — Williams hit a homerun in his final major league at-bat; Chief Alley retires after recently being named Texas Fire Chief of the Year. In addition to his outstanding professional accomplishments, Chief Alley has been a tremendous ambassador for the City of College Station and will long be remembered for his contagious optimism and friendly demeanor. Chief Alley sat down with us last week to talk about his career and accomplishments.
At 55 years old, you’re still relatively young. Why are you retiring now?
“In the fire service, 55 is kind of a magic number. At that point, you normally have 30 or 40 years of service. Once you hit 55, if you can walk off the job standing up with all your arms and legs in good shape, that’s a blessing. At lot of people aren’t able to do that. I’ve seen a lot of fire chiefs hold on just because they can — longer than they should sometimes. There comes a point where you kind of get in your own little comfort zone, and you’re not really moving the organization forward. When you get to the point where you feel like you’ve helped the organization get it where it needs to be and you’ve accomplished some major goals – not just for the community but personally — you have to look inside. What’s going to be best for the organization and what’s going to be best for me? The organization is in great shape, we’ve got great leaders in all positions, and we’ve got people trained to move up. Passing the baton to the next fire chief will be a good thing for the organization and the community. It’s been an honor to work in the City of College Station, and I’ve been very blessed to be here. I can’t think of any other place I’d want to finish my career as a fire chief.”
What do you remember most about your eight years as College Station’s fire chief?
“One of the things I remember most about my time here is how this community pulled together when crisis would strike. In 2005, I came here from Virginia Beach, Va., which has a history of hurricanes. I thought I’d escaped that, but a couple of months after I got here we were dealing with Hurricane Katrina, then Hurricane Rita right behind it. We had a lot of evacuees come to College Station from both of those hurricanes. It was a very exciting time for emergency services because we had a lot of activity and a lot of people to take care of. I found out real quickly that no matter what tragedies or events happen, this community pulls together and works together and that this is a great place to work and be a part of.”
What surprised you most about College Station?
“The first question I was asked when I got here was “do you like maroon?” Actually, I’ve always liked maroon because I’ve been a lifetime Washington Redskins fan. It was always one of my favorite colors. That wasn’t the answer those people were looking for, but I found out very quickly how important that color is to this community and how the two cities, the county and the university have such a unique bond. What probably surprised me most was the complexity of the community and how the two cities have to work together with the county and the university. It’s a very complex operation, and it was refreshing to see that everybody was open to working together. A lot of things have to be in place for those four entities to work together so closely.”
“I think I’ll always be an Aggie at heart. The Aggie spirit is second to none, and I’ve never experienced anything like it. I had heard a lot about the traditions, but as someone who didn’t grow up here or go to A&M, I didn’t realize the impact A&M had not only in this community but around the world. Graduates of A&M have served at the highest levels in the military, run their own businesses and become CEOs at major corporations. A lot of them are retiring back in College Station because they love this university so much. I didn’t graduate from A&M, but I feel like I was adopted. The Aggie spirit is something I’ll cherish forever.”
What do you remember most about being your 40 years as a firefighter?
“Probably the most memorable part is the brotherhood and sisterhood that exists in the fire services. I’m not aware of any occupation that has that level of companionship or love for one another. I started out as a volunteer firefighter and knew that’s what I wanted to do for a career. I was fortunate to get hired at a very young age, and I just loved it. I loved the brotherhood and sisterhood within the fire service, as well as just helping people. Sometimes, it’s the worst day in someone’s life and you just try to help them any way you can. That’s a special part of the fire service. Every call you go on, you’re touching somebody’s life.”
What makes someone want to be a firefighter and put themselves in such dangerous situations?
“It takes a special personality for someone to do this every day. We pretty much hire A-type personalities who come in and want to respond. Firefighters thrive on action, activity and helping people. They want to help people who need help, then come back and get ready for that next call. They have a drive inside of them to try to make a difference by responding to emergencies. In hiring, we look for people with high energy who want to come in and help people in very difficult situations. We tell them that when they enter the fire service, they have to be here 24/7 when they are on duty. And even if they’re off duty, we may need them to come back and respond to a major fire or rescue. They’re never really off-duty. We try to communicate to them early on how important their job is and how the community depends on them. You have to be able to live that type of lifestyle to be successful in the fire service.”
What’s the most dangerous situation you ever found yourself in?
“We had a major fire in Virginia Beach that to this day is the largest dollar loss in the history of the Virginia Beach Fire Department. It was a massive structure that had more than 500 boats stored inside. It had an alarm system but no sprinkler protection. It had been built back in the 1980s before fire prevention codes and sprinkler systems became required. It was pretty much a rack storage type of facility. A large forklift would take your boat out of the water and stick it on a shelf inside this huge building that was more than five stories tall. Many of the boats we were worth a million dollars or more, and the first floor was loaded with racing boats. When the alarm came in, one engine went to check it out and when they walked in, they saw a boat on fire halfway up the rack in the middle of the building. They called for help and other units responded, but the building burned to the ground in about four hours. The fire was very intense and we couldn’t see much because the smoke was so bad. Thankfully, nobody was injured, a lot of the boats were made of fiberglass and each of the boats had fuel in them. There was a lot of run-off into the water and we had to clean all that up. It was about a $274 million loss and was a major deal.”
What major incidents do you recall in College Station?
“We’ve had several major apartment fires where people had to find places to stay because their apartment building burned down. We had an explosion in a chemistry lab on the A&M campus that was very memorable. Thank God it was at a time when school was out. We had to deal with chemicals and structural damage and worked with the university to get that building back up and running. The hurricanes were a situation where we had to really stretch our resources. We had so many people coming here during those events, especially during Hurricane Rita. They were busing people out of nursing homes and places like that in Houston. Busses were arriving with people who died during transport. They weren’t in very good health before the hurricane and just weren’t able to survive after evacuating from the nursing homes. People had to ride the busses next to people who had died. It was a tough situation.”
“The most difficult thing has been managing our limited resources with the rapid growth of the city. College Station continued to grow at a rapid rate even during the economic downtown. It’s been a real challenge to manage a growing city and providing the services the city needs and demands without raising taxes.”
Talk about the unsung heroes of the fire service – the families. What do they go through?
“The family life of a firefighter is really complex. Firefighters are away from home for 24 hours at a time. Many of them also work part time jobs. When they leave the fire station, they go to another job to make ends meet. Many of their spouses work, too, and we have some beautiful children in our fire department family. It’s difficult to balance everything and to give your family the things you want to see them have. When a firefighter is on duty, he has to focus on responding to emergency calls, but we try to teach them early on that they are a whole person. If their child is sick or their spouse is having problems, we realize they’re thinking about that. Those are very tough situations because our firefighters are also dealing with life and death scenarios at work. On any given day, they could respond to an event that could injure or kill them. We try to get them to think about how to balance their personal life with their work life. They have to be focused every day. When they respond to an accident call, they may be cutting someone out of a car, doing CPR, or putting out a fire. They have to be focused in these difficult situations, but we also realize they may have things going on in their personal life that affects that focus. We try to get them to tell us when they are having issues. We have some great employee assistance programs that help them work through these things so they can give us 110 percent, but the reality is that’s not going to happen every day.”
You spent your whole life in Virginia Beach. Va. How did you end up in College Station?
“When I retired from the Virginia Beach Fire Department, I applied for several fire chief positions. I was a district chief there and I was looking to be a fire chief. It was kind of funny how it all turned out. In Virginia Beach, I’d been in the training department for 10 years. I would send people to Texas A&M and the Brayton Fire School for training every year, but I had never been here myself. As soon as they got back, they would come to my office and say it was the greatest training they’d ever done. They always came in and said what great training it was and what a great place College Station was. I thought, man, College Station’s got something going on out there. They took a lot of training at other places, but very seldom did they come back and brag about the training they’d received. When I retired up there, I noticed they were advertising for a fire chief in College Station. I told my wife that I’d never been to College Station but had heard all these great things about it. She told me to apply and lo and behold, I was selected to be fire chief. I feel like I was called to be here. I prayed about it for sure, and I’ve been nothing but blessed since the time I got here. Not only is it a wonderful community, but the city has been so great to me and my family.”
“Probably the biggest changes I’ve seen have been in safety and how we respond to calls. When I started back in 1973 as a volunteer firefighter, we were still riding on tailboards of fire trucks, nobody had seat belts in the trucks and we went into burning buildings without a mask. The masks were on the truck, but you only had a few of them. As the old-timers would say, you only put on a mask for the bad fires. If there was just a little smoke, or white smoke coming out, you went in without a mask. But over the years a lot of firefighters were injured and died tragically. Everybody has to wear a breathing apparatus now, no matter how bad the fire is. All of our trucks now have seat belts, the cabs are enclosed and the newer ones have air bags. We also have an accountability system now where everybody has to be tracked on the fire ground. In the old days, at the end of the fire you kind of said “okay, everybody’s still here.” Now you keep track of everybody at regular intervals. We do 10-minute checks on the fire ground to make sure all of our people are where they’re supposed to be. A lot of things as far as safety and technology have moved the fire service into the future.”
What’s changed most in the CSFD during your tenure?
“As I mentioned before, we’ve had to deal with a growing city. Thanks to our wonderful citizens, our city councils and city managers, we’ve been able to build three fire stations. That doesn’t happen in many communities. We’re so very fortunate and blessed to have had the resources to do that and keep up with its growth. We needed to build fire stations and get them updated with newer technology and construction features. The stations we’ve built are designed to last 50 years or more. They are going to be here for a long time to protect the community. We put a lot of miles on our vehicles going to and from calls, and we’ve been able to replace a lot of our fire trucks and ambulances through our normal replacement budget process. The city has an excellent replacement process in place to help us do those things and make sure we have the most up-to-date equipment. But the greatest thing has been hiring the men and women of the College Station Fire Department. They are our No. 1 resource. Without these great people, none of the great things we’re able to do each and every day would happen. We have nice trucks and facilities, but without the people to provide the service, nothing happens. That’s what I’m most proud of, being able to work with the men and women of the College Station Fire Department. As a team, we’ve accomplished many things together over the last eight years. When I got here, we had about 90 people, and now we’ve got 139. We’ve been able to add some new people with the additional stations that have come on line. We also were able to bring our dedicated ladder company back into service. When I got here, the ladder company had been taken out of service because of the tough economic times. We not only built three stations, we also brought our ladder company back into service with four people on it. We were also able to provide an additional ambulance when Station No. 6 opened and we now have four that are staffed daily to help keep our community safe. Those are some of the big things we were able to do in the last eight years that I’m very, very proud of. It was a team effort with all of us working together to make those things happen.”
How did you become a firefighter, anyway?
“It all centered around my father. As a teenager, I worked summers as a lifeguard down on the beachfront. My dad worked in public utilities as water superintendent, and he was also a volunteer with the Virginia Beach Volunteer Fire Department. When he’d get called late at night, he’d wake me up and say, “hey, we’ve got a fire, let’s go.” Back then, the volunteers responded in their personal vehicles or pickup trucks. He’d get out and I’d sit there in the truck at 2:30 in the morning and watch them fight a fire or make a rescue. It was very exciting for a young kid and I always knew it was something I wanted to do. When I graduated high school, I was probably one of the only people in my graduating class of 624 who knew what he wanted to do. I applied for it, but you had to be 19 and I wasn’t old enough. I had to wait almost a year. In the meantime, I worked for the city making signs in the sign shop. At 19, I was hired as a career firefighter in Virginia Beach. I worked my way up to inspector, then lieutenant, captain, training captain, battalion chief, and finally district chief.
Do you ever wish you had done something else?
“I wouldn’t change a thing. I played baseball in high school, and had a scholarship offer to a two-year school, but my heart was in the fire service. I made the right decision and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
What accomplishment are you proudest of in College Station?
“There are so many things to be proud of in College Station. Probably the biggest thing we’ve been able to do over the last eight years is to really revamp our officer development program and our succession training program. Our firefighters are our No. 1 resource. We wanted to focus on hiring the best people, so we changed our hiring process for we could make sure we hire the best of the best. The next step was to put an officer development program in place. They can see step-by-step how to reach their goals. If they want to be a driver engineer, they can see how to get there. If they want to be a lieutenant, they can see how to get there. If they want to be a captain or battalion chief, it’s all laid out for them. They know what classes they have to take and what benchmarks they have to reach. It’s really about getting people ready for the future and developing new leaders. I’m very proud that we were able to build a program that starts at hiring, goes to officer development, then gets them ready to be promoted and to move up. We encourage all of our people to find somebody who they can mentor or somebody who can mentor them, and ask those people to help them be the best they can be. We need great people to be firefighter paramedics, driver engineers, lieutenant, captain, whatever they want to be.”
“The leaders of College Station have inspired me to do the best I can for the community. Coming from Virginia, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was welcomed with open arms. People wanted to know what I was all about and what I could bring to College Station to make it a better place to live. I look at all the things that have happened here, and I’m so proud to be a part of every piece of it, from helping community leaders and the university, to working with both cities and the county, and trying to figure out how we can all do this together and be successful. I feel like my fingerprints will always be here and I’m very proud of that.”
What will you remember most about living in College Station?
“This community is all about the people. I’ve had an opportunity to work with what I consider to be the best professional organization, the City of College Station. We’ve seen a lot of changes in our management team, but you realize pretty quickly that this community is all about change. It’s evolving and it continues to evolve. What I’ve seen in eight years is unbelievable, and I’m very pleased to have been a part of that. I know some really great things are ahead for College Station. Some of the things I’ll take with me are the spirit of the community and the excellence of the city’s management team that I’ve had the privilege and honor to work with. I’ll also take back that Aggie spirit. It’s something special.”
What are your plans for retirement?
“My short-term goal is to spend the rest of the summer on the beach doing some boogie boarding and surfing. My son will be a senior in high school next year, so I’m excited about being with him. He wants to learn how to surf, so I told him we’d do that this summer. In the fall, I’ll start thinking more about what I want to do with the next phase of my life. My hobbies are all geared around football. I’ll definitely be attending some Redskins games, I can tell you that right now. I’ll also be looking at how I can continue to contribute to the fire service. I’ve had opportunities while I’ve been here to teach over at the fire school, and before I came here I taught some fire science programs at a community college in Virginia. My plans are to get back into college-level teaching in the fire science program and also do some consulting work in the Virginia Beach area. There are a lot of fire departments in that area and they are always looking at ways to develop their officers. I’ll see what I can do to help those organizations get their people ready. The fire service grew tremendously in the 1970s, but there is a graying-out in the leadership positions and a lot of people are retiring. I want to help departments prepare and be ready for that. Besides that, I just want to spend time with my beautiful wife and my kids. That’s really what it’s all about right there.”
Finally, the consensus seems to be that you’re the most positive person on the planet. Do you ever have a bad day?
“I’ve been blessed in so many ways that I really don’t have bad days. A lot of that comes from the way I was raised. My dad’s perspective was that every day is a good day. He would say that your attitude and how you start your day is one of the only things you have control over. He instilled in me to start the day with a good attitude. I’ve always remembered that, so I always come in with a positive attitude. I believe that if you have a positive attitude, the people around you will have a positive attitude. My experience through the fire service has shown that to be true. I’ve seen people come in who were always negative, and you find out real quick that that attitude spreads. I’ve always tried to influence everyone to be positive.”