Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

December 28, 2013

Valdosta’s fire chief prepares to step down

VALDOSTA —  “I’ve been packing files and paperwork for awhile, but it isn’t until you start taking things off the shelves that it starts to hit you,” Valdosta Fire Chief J.D. Rice said Friday, reflecting on his coming retirement.

As the books and plaques come down from the walls, Rice has been reflecting on what has been a career spanning 35 years and a tenure as chief that saw major changes to hiring practices in his department and a focus on excellence and fairness.

Rice was born in Douglas, but began his career as a firefighter almost a thousand miles away.

“I had put in an application with the University of South Florida. I wanted to become a dentist,” said Rice, “but my sister was teaching in Michigan, and she wanted me to come up there because she said I didn’t know anyone in Tampa. I told her I wasn’t going, but she sent a bus ticket anyway.”

That ticket took Rice to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan where he studied political science on the G.I. Bill after finishing his service in the Army. Rice did not work while he was in school but was encouraged by his sister to look for a job. One day, she gave him a newspaper ad for a firefighter’s position as a not-so-subtle hint.

“I didn’t feel like I needed to get a job,” said Rice, “but to make her happy, I went down to the fire department and filled out an application.”

While he was filling out the form, the fire chief called Rice into his office, started a conversation and offered him the job.

“He asked if I had ever heard of CETA, the comprehensive employment training act,” said Rice. “He said he had to hire minorities, and if I was interested I would have the job. That’s how I got started in 1978.”

He worked for three years in Michigan, and despite getting his foot in the door by virtue of his skin color, Rice insists it was hard work that kept him in the position.

“I had to prove myself. I had to measure up to the standards that the fire department had set,” said Rice. “Just because I was a different color than anybody else there didn’t mean that I got any special treatment. I had to go in and carry my part of the load.”

Rice’s Michigan experiences taught him the importance of merit and fairness, values that would heavily inform his decisions and guide him as chief.

After graduating, Rice spent several years in Waycross as a fire marshal until a chance phone call from a fellow firefighter led him to Valdosta’s assistant chief position in 1992. Three years later, Rice was hired as chief, and his dedication to merit and fairness was put to the test.

“I have never really talked about it before,” said Rice, “but trying to convince people that they were going to get a fair shake, when I came on the job, was especially difficult.”

Rice felt that some people thought that firefighters with his same skin color were going to get preferential treatment.

“I’ve never referred to myself as a black fire chief. I’m just a fire chief who happens to be black,” said Rice. “I don’t believe in hiring or promoting anyone based on anything other than merit. If you want a job, you have to hit the books and apply yourself. You won’t get anything from me based on anything other than that.”

Rice put his money where his mouth was after each of his firefighters, black and white, failed the promotion test he gave his first year on the job.

“Some of the firefighters asked if I was going to grade on a curve to fill the position,” said Rice. “I said I would rather leave the job vacant before I gave it to someone who is not qualified.”

Apparently, the message was received, and several passing grades came across his desk when the test was given again a year later.

“It took me two years to get everyone to understand that we are not going to base hiring or promotions on anything other than merit,” said Rice.

Fairness was on Rice’s mind when he initiated what would become one of the biggest changes in the history of the Valdosta Fire Department.

“Probably the proudest moment I have was when we hired our first female firefighters,” said Rice. “That was a major milestone. It had been a 100 percent male force for almost 100 years, and we hired five females at the same time.”

Rice views the hires as a progressive step towards fairness and equality and said that, since his decision to hire women, not a single harassment or discrimination complaint has been filed. He said he took a zero-tolerance position from the beginning and crammed his firemen like sardines into the old firehouse basement to challenge his force to come on board.

“‘Gentlemen,’ I said, ‘We are going to start next week with our first female firefighters, and I have a two-strike rule,’” said Rice. “‘The first time that somebody violates their right to work here, it’s going to cost you 30 days suspension. The second time will cost you your job.’”

Most of the women were graduates of a program which Rice had helped develop with what was then Valdosta Technical College. The program trained firefighters and prepared them for the job before they set foot in the firehouse. The program saved the city thousands of dollars in training costs.

“One of the problems we were having was that new hires didn’t fully understand what they were getting into and would quit after their first fire,” said Rice. “Now, 90 percent of our hires come through that program. They go through every aspect of the job, and they know what it’s like. We would spend up to $30,000 getting someone trained, and now we save that money. We have yet to have someone from that program leave because they didn’t like the job.”

Rice further saved millions of dollars by successfully working to improve the city’s Insurance Services Office rating from Class 3 to Class 2, an extraordinary feat given Valdosta’s rapid growth in the past 15 years.

“In 2001, there were only 13 buildings in town that were three stories or taller,” said Rice. “By 2011, there were over 70, and we still have to provide service to those structures.”

An increase in the ISO rating could have meant a $70 to $100 increase in an average homeowner’s insurance, but that money was saved thanks to a targeted approach that made the fire department more efficient, trained and prepared, Rice said.

Rice retires from his post at the end of this year after serving 18 years as Valdosta’s fire chief but will stay on the job for 30 to 60 more days until a new chief is hired, and he has expectations of the new hire.

“I hope they can take what we’ve done here in the past 15 to 20 years and build on it — make it better,” said Rice. “That’s my dream. I hope it’s someone who is inclusive and continues to help the department grow.”

Rice’s retirement plans may end up being radically different than what he is used to but not all that unfamiliar. As chief, Rice has initiated community efforts to educate people about fire safety and prevention, including a free smoke alarm program, and views education as key to reducing the number of fire deaths and injuries. He personally teaches his department’s workshops on safety, job performance and diversity to demonstrate how seriously he takes the issues, but he hopes his next job will involve educating people about something else: the past.

“I’d like to teach U.S. history. I’d like to give it a shot,” said Rice. “I’ve got some other offers, too, but that’s what I want to do. I love history. It’s always fascinating.”

As Rice prepares to teach others about the past, he has secured his own place in Valdosta’s history.

“I hope I’m remembered as a fire chief who brought about change,” said Rice, “and I really hope I’m remembered as a chief who was fair.”

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