"One of the most important lessons I think anybody can learn is that you want to find a job or a career that you just love doing," says Rogers Fire Chief Tom Jenkins.
Jenkins knows what he's talking about. His story is one of intense focus, motivation and hard work. The combination allowed him to assume the rank of deputy fire chief at the tender age of 23, fire chief at 27 and, this year, the role of president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the highest elected fire service position in the United States.
Through Others’ Eyes
“Once you get to know Tom, it becomes clear why he was named the fire chief of the city of Rogers at the tender age of 27 years old. We quickly realized that Tom Jenkins is an uncommon man and leader, and his personality and loyalty as a friend is truly beyond his years. I believe some of the reasons Tom excels in his current position is his ability to relate and communicate with ALL people regardless of age, rank and status — he is a consensus builder and incorporates team building within his department.” — friend Doug Kavulich
“He’s always learning, always working, even in the middle of a conversation, his mind is churning out solutions. He’s one of those people who can think out loud and produce entire paragraphs that are even well organized. The city of Rogers is lucky to have him as their fire chief. He could be successful anywhere, yet he chooses to work on behalf of the citizens of Rogers.” — David Dayringer, Fayetteville fire chief
“He’s very bright. I think that it takes that to reach the success he has t such an early age. He’s quick to understand the situation, look for variables or contingencies, and make decisions. When you get to a chief level in any public safety organization you have to be decisive. People are looking to you for answers. Tom is quick to gather the facts and make a decision on the matters we face in public safety.” — Hayes Minor
It was a dream that was ignited when he was very young.
"I wanted to get on the job," he says of his early years. "I wanted to get on the job really bad. I remember being a kid, hanging out at fire stations, and I was always jealous of other kids whose dads were on the job."
Instead, both of Jenkins' parents were teachers in the public school system of Broken Arrow, Okla., the suburb of Tulsa where Jenkins was born. Jenkins thinks his parents' careers as public servants may have gently nudged him in the direction of firefighter.
"I think everybody is fascinated with it as a child -- it's hard not to be," says Jenkins. "Look at the fire trucks and at a fire station -- it's just so symbolic of America. It's the most trusted government profession. I'm sure I just had a normal fascination with it like every other kid. But my dad had a couple of really good friends who were Tulsa firefighters, and I remember them taking an interest in me and allowing me to come and spend some time at those stations as a young boy. I got to see what the life of a firefighter was like."
It was an era of transition for the field as fire departments expanded into the area of emergency medical care.
"I got to experience what it was like for the fire department to maneuver and become health care providers," he says. "And little did I know that, years later, nearly every fire department in every city across the country would be the only health care providers that make house calls 24/7."
The firefighting fever did not fade as Jenkins grew older. As soon as he turned 16, he signed up to be a volunteer firefighter.
"I went through the training and went through the Academy that they had put together," he says. "I had been thirsty for so long to be able to do that. And it was a very rewarding experience. I would spend the night at the fire department. It was a hefty obligation. I had a math teacher that used to say, 'Get experience.' The opportunities that may come knocking are always made easier when you've got some background in it."
While most 16 year-olds play sports, go to parties or hang out with friends, Jenkins spent many of his afternoons and evenings at the fire station.
"I was almost blindly focused," he says. "I didn't just know what I wanted to be -- I knew where I was going to college, I knew what I wanted to major in. I knew what I wanted my job to be while I was at college. If there was an error I made as a young adult, it's probably that I grew up too quick. I probably traded out some fun in college. I would come home and work at the fire department on the weekends. I think my current wife, and probably my ex-wife, would say that if there's ever been a distraction in my personal life, it's been the fire department.
"My wife sometimes calls it my mistress."
'Sky's the limit'
Jenkins' undergraduate studies took him to Oklahoma State University, which is internationally known for its fire protection and safety engineering program.
"It has been called the West Point of the fire service," says Jenkins. "It's where you go to learn at an academic level how you control fire and other occupational hazards. I don't use all elements of my degree every day, but it's such a broad base that it helps me understand not only how fire behaves but also the dynamics associated with it. "
Mike Wieder was the associate director of Fire Protection Publications at OSU when Jenkins was a research technician. He says that Jenkins was an immediate standout.
"He was very polished," he says. "You could tell that he had taken some leadership roles in his early part of life. He was energetic, yet very humble. He took on some duties that other students would not normally be given.
"In the 30 years I was in the position I've only seen one or two that, from the first time you meet them, you say, 'He's different.' And so far, he's never been a disappointment to me. The sky is the limit for him if he keeps doing things the way he's doing them."
Jenkins' secret for his success remained his passion: the more challenging his studies became, the more interesting he found the work.
"I look at friends of mine, they went to college, and it was tougher for them, I think, because they just weren't passionate about what they were doing," he says. "I would get up, and I was so excited to go to class. I still have all of my binders and books and not because I paid money for them, it's because I love the subject. I guess you have to have a little element of dork to be like that."
Jenkins followed up his undergraduate degree with a master's in public administration, but he never stopped working as a fire fighter. He earned his master's going to classes on nights and weekends. His hard work paid off when he was appointed deputy fire chief in Sand Springs, Okla., when he was just 23.
"It's not a giant city, but it was a fantastic place to be a firefighter, because of the spectrum of hazards that you have to protect against," he says. "It was busy. And it was a great place to cut my teeth right out of college. It was like a baptism. We had a lot of stuff in the river, so you get a lot of water rescue experience. It's an industrial community, so you get all of the hazards and risks associated with heavy industry that you can't find just everywhere."
This leadership position was Jenkins' first experience being appointed above men who had been in the business for 20 or 30 years.
"If there was ever a place to learn about brotherhood, it was in that suburb," he says. "I was younger than a lot of the guys that were employed there. And they were like family to me and still are. I would say they helped me develop into a good leader, helped me learn from my mistakes and kept me safe.
"You know, I had learned by then that first of all, I don't know it all. I have a genuine passion for it, and I'm an intelligent firefighter, but I haven't experienced everything there is to experience. You have to be smart enough to know what to ask people who have more gray hair than you do."
Jenkins says he was happy in his position in Sand Springs but recognized that his personal job growth was limited. The current fire chief had no imminent plans to retire, and he was in danger of stagnating.
That's when he learned of an opening for fire chief in Rogers. Rep. Steve Womack (AR 3rd District) was mayor of Rogers at the time. Womack had made it pretty far in the interviewing process with an Oklahoma fire fighter named Greg Neely before Neely decided he didn't want to move his family out of state until his children finished school.
"This is where the Jenkins situation gets funny," says Womack. "Neely called me and said, 'OK, I've got someone who is ideal for your situation, but before I tell you his name, I want you to promise me that you will interview him.' I said, 'That's a stupid request. Of course I will! Why would you make me promise?' And he said, 'Because of his age.' I said, 'How old is he?' And he said, '27.' I said, 'I'm not going to interview a 27-year-old!' And Neely said, 'You promised.'"
Womack kept his promise. And, he says, it was immediately evident why Jenkins had earned the support of his fellow Oklahoma firefighter.
"Jenkins would not accept the job officially until he had a chance to go out and visit with a few of my senior firefighters, and I thought that was pretty incredible," says Womack. "We had a firefighter named Bruce Jensen, and he was one of our veterans. He was very good at what he did, but he had a bit of an edge. So I said to Jenkins, 'OK, I want you to go out and talk to Bruce Jensen.' He did that afternoon, and to my complete surprise, Bruce Jensen calls me at my office and says, 'Mayor, I just had a visit with a guy that you're looking at for fire chief. I want you to know, in my strong opinion, you need to hire that kid.' And knew right then I was on to someone pretty special." And I was not disappointed."
Rogers Police Chief Hayes Minor has known Jenkins since his move to Rogers, and the two men have worked together in their professional capacities. They have also become close friends.
"He's a great communicator," he notes. "I think the first time you meet Tom, you're struck by his presence. He understands people, and when you're talking to him, you feel like you're the only person in the room.
"I would say the level of cooperation between our agencies is better than most in Arkansas and the rest of the nation."
Minor says one of Jenkins' first accomplishments in his position as Rogers Fire Chief was to ensure the department's equipment was up-to-date.
"Looking at their equipment as an outsider, they're second-to-none in terms of top-notch safety," Minor says. "Good equipment is essential in the field. It makes it easier for his department to do the work our citizens count on them doing. It also goes toward staff morale and retention of employees. He played a little catch-up with that in terms of facilities and apparatus when he first came here."
Minor notes that under Jenkins' leadership, the Rogers Fire Department has a low Insurance Service Office (ISO) rating, a statistical indication of risk associated with the department, and the Rogers Fire Department was awarded Accredited Agency Status by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International in 2011. The city's website notes that Rogers is one of only 155 agencies worldwide to be awarded that status.
"That's huge," Minor says. "I can speak to the work that goes into getting something like that accomplished in such a small amount of time."
Work and family
For his part, Jenkins -- whose friends and colleagues frequently use the word "humble" to describe him -- is generous when sharing the reasons behind his successes in Rogers.
"I mean this from the bottom of my heart: I have worked for cities and consulted for cities that claimed public safety was the No. 1 priority, but it wasn't," he says. "That was all just fantasy, a good line. In Rogers, this city council and mayor, they put their money where their mouth is. That's one of the reasons I have just fallen in love with not just Northwest Arkansas, but also specifically the government I work for. It prioritizes public safety, and I see it time and time again. I can drive you to businesses and houses that would have total losses, if not for the diligent, smart, elected officials in this city."
Jenkins is equally as effusive in his praise of his team at the Rogers Fire Department. It's obvious he runs an inclusive, supportive department. He gently corrects the use of the outdated term "fireman" ("We try as much as we can these days to call them 'firefighters,' because some of the best firefighters I have are women, fantastic members of the department"). He is also attuned to the difficulties of working in such a stressful, physically exhausting career -- something the public might not always understand.
"There's kind of this conundrum of the fire services and its mission identity," says Jenkins, who points out that shifting duties requires great flexibility from firefighters. "The fire department is the best place to do emergency medicine. If you think about fire stations, they are distributed throughout the city in strategic locations along major arterial roads to provide a fast response. That's exactly what we want in healthcare. If someone has a seizure or a kid has an asthma attack, you want well-trained, well-oiled machines showing up solving the problem in rapid time. And so it just makes sense from an economic perspective to have the fire department do both.
"Today, the fire department is about 75 to 80 percent emergency medicine. But, truly, the fire department responds to all hazards in today's world. If one of these industrial facilities has a leak, we have to be hazardous materials technicians. We're the street chemists, deciding whether something will contaminate storm water systems or how we can contain a leak to make sure that there's not an inhalation injury to an unknowing population.
"We also do all the technical rescue stuff. We have to be able to effect rescue of civilians in any context. Water, trapped under dirt, trapped cleaning windows on a skyscraper. Our mission is just the spectrum, and the boundaries continue to grow for us.
"The side effect of that explaining of our emerging mission is that people think, 'Oh, they don't do fires anymore.' But even though the number of fires and firefighter fatalities year over year has gone down, fire is not an endangered species. We live in Tornado Alley, and people really fear tornadoes. Fire kills almost 4,000 people in the United States every year, and 90 percent of those fatalities occur in people's homes, where they sleep, where they live. And that's more than all other natural disasters combined. The job of the fire chief is to educate people on all of the missions that we do. But you never want to leave people with the impression that fire is minimized in what risk it poses to the citizenry."
The ever expanding mission requires ongoing training and ample certifications for all members of the department.
"We need to make sure that your average, run-of-the-mill Rogers firefighter can solve a lot of problems," says Jenkins. "And so for us, every firefighter is at least an emergency medical technician. Seventy percent -- maybe close to 80 percent -- of our firefighters are paramedics that can provide a much higher degree of medical intervention. Ninety percent of our firefighters are hazardous materials response technicians, which is the highest level of hazardous materials response that can be provided."
A career in which -- as Jenkins puts it -- you spend much of your time helping people on the worst day of their lives can be fraught with not just physical stress, but emotional stress, as well. Jenkins says that most firefighters have at least one event that sticks with them long after the tragedy is cleaned up. He says it's up to him as fire chief to make sure his people make it through these events both mentally and physically healthy.
"When I was in Sand Springs, I remember the date -- it was September 6, 2006. We had an accident that ended up killing six [people]. It was horrible. It took me years to figure out that it had an impact on my behavior as a person. There were elements of that incident that made it different than your normal experience with death.
"This is not a career where the workers are known for talking about their feelings. But a nationwide trend that's emerging tells us we need to worry about firefighter mental health as much as we do their physical health. Firefighters are required to exercise every shift because we want to make sure they're healthy. We send them to physicals every year to make sure they're healthy. But mental health can go unnoticed. For almost 20 years as a volunteer and career firefighter, I've seen divorces and careers end. I know a lot of bad things happened because we didn't do the job of taking care of our people. It puts an obligation on our shoulders to make sure that, for the guys and gals I supervise, that I know their thresholds. I need to make sure people are OK."
A chief tool in managing this kind of emotional stress is support, says Jenkins, both inside and outside of the department. An only child, Jenkins says he found a plethora of sibling-like support when he joined his first fire department.
"In this business, you always call them brothers and sisters," says Jenkins of his co-workers. "It means something different to all different people on the job. For others, it may be clichéd, but for me, those are my siblings. I have an extra special bond with a lot of people that I've worked with and the people I work with presently.
"And one of the things that has allowed me to be a good leader here and engaged here -- a stable home life. And my wife, Amanda, is a rock star. We have three boys. So there's a lot of balance there. And she's the unsung hero in the narrative. If I miss a holiday or if I have to go do something last minute that interrupts her plans, she's the one that has to shift and has to balance all of that."
Jenkins' sons are 12, 9 and 5, and, so far, none of them is showing the same passion for firefighting that Jenkins showed as a child. That's OK, he says, there's still time. In the meantime, he'll continue living his passion and, as he says, never working a day in his life.
"I've told people that the one thing I think is most important is that my guys and gals always know that I care. I don't always make the right decision. I screw up as much as any other person. But we're always trying to make it better and improve it. And that radio is two feet from my ear when I sleep at night. I carry it everywhere.
"This is not a job. It's a passion."
NAN Profiles on 11/26/2017
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