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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK "He has a heart for the guys, a heart for the firemen. He's a leader who always puts the people first -- an incredible leader. It's a rare quality." -- Brad Hardin

When Fire Chief David Dayringer retires from the Fayetteville Fire Department this month, he'll close the book on nearly 40 years of service to fire departments in both Oklahoma and Arkansas. He's been the fire chief in Fayetteville for almost a decade, and, through the years, he's worked in nearly every other position to be found within a fire department: firefighter, fire equipment operator, fire captain, fire marshal, training chief, deputy chief and fire marshal. But, he says, with emotion in his voice, the people are what he'll miss most about the career he's dedicated his life to.

"This is our other family," he confirms after being asked if the bond is strong between him and the men he's worked beside for the past decade. To illustrate, Dayringer says one of his co-workers had a medical emergency recently that landed him in the intensive care unit. "He's had a steady flow of firefighters and their families sitting up there with him and his wife. That's their other family."

It's understandable, of course, that a career that asks you and your co-workers to risk your life on a regular basis would result in strong bonds. Dayringer's memory of the first time he responded to a fire call involves his superior giving him life-saving advice that would help keep him safe throughout his career.

"My very first fire, I went in and, you know, it's real smoky in there," he says, explaining that his nickname at the time was "Boom." "I'm coughing pretty bad. And my captain says, 'Boom, if you get down here on the floor with me, you can breathe a lot better.' I was standing straight up. After all of my training and everything! But I was just so excited, I was standing straight up. So I got down there with him, and it got a little easier. And then he told me, 'You put your air back on.' At the time, we kept our oxygen masks and air packs in suitcases in a compartment on the engine. And if you used them, you were weak. If you took the time to put them on, you were taking too much time. But he said, 'You need to start wearing your mask. I don't want you to go into these without that,' which was good advice. [Not wearing the mask] is why we're all getting cancer."

Ten years later, when he was the one leading a rookie, he returned the favor.

"When I was captain at [Station] 16 [in Oklahoma], I had a rookie assigned to me my first day as captain," he remembers. "He's fresh out of training. We had a house fire, and it was dark. There was a porch, and it was a shotgun house, like they have up there. Lloyd was his name, and we were up there, had everything ready to go. You always let the rookie in front to be the nozzle man, then you're guiding him in the back. We get up on the porch and kick that door in, and, in the back of the house, you could just see [the fire] come rolling at us. I grabbed Lloyd and fell off the porch, dragging him with me, and the flames just came rolling out the front door. My chief had pulled up right when that happened; he thought the flames had blasted us off the porch. He comes running over, saying, 'You guys OK?' I said, 'Yeah, we're OK, Chief. We just fell backwards.' He said, 'Oh, man, I thought that got you!'"

One particular thing about the job that was difficult for him to adjust to was spending, as he puts it, "one day out of three, 24 hours" at the fire station, away from his family.

"People say, well, you sleep at the fire station and, I mean, you close your eyes and you rest, but you're still on edge, waiting for the drop -- the alarm -- to go off," says Dayringer, who remembers staying up all night, anxiously waiting for something to happen, on his first overnight as a rookie. "It's not real sleeping. You're poised the whole time. You can't ever get into too deep a sleep."

And, of course, all of the responsibilities of a family household are left to the spouse during an overnight.

"It was hard because it seemed like everything that could ever go wrong with our home would go wrong when he was at the fire station," says Sandra Dayringer. The couple have been married for 35 years. "Problems with the house, and, also missing out on big things like soccer games and wrestling matches. They have to be gone on holidays and special occasions. But you just get used to it."

"That's when all the bad stuff happens," agrees Dayringer. "You know, that's when the leaks happen, the plumbing goes out, the air conditioner goes out. That's when the kids are getting in trouble."

Preacher's kid

Dayringer's path to firefighting didn't start with a childhood dream, as it does for some people. One of five children, he was born in Liberty, Mo., the son of a Baptist minister. The family moved around a lot: Dayringer's father went where a pastor was needed and, later, the family moved so that his father could pursue his doctorate degree at a seminary in New Orleans. Dayringer says it wasn't easy starting school in so many different towns, but he made the best of it.

"Like an 'army brat,' but I was a 'preacher's brat'," he says. "We always felt like we needed to be more rowdy than the other kids, since we were the preacher's kids, you know? I always had to show out and stuff. But I think it made me a good judge of character, having to make friends all those times. It molded who I am today."

Dayringer's father would ultimately become prominent in the hospital chaplaincy arena.

"He's written a bunch of books," notes Dayringer of his father, who served as the editor of the American Journal of Pastoral Counseling and worked as a chaplain at Ground Zero in New York City in the month after the attacks on the World Trade Center. "When I see him interact with people -- he's got a real gift for it."

When one last move too close to his high school graduation date meant that Dayringer fell short of credits necessary to graduate at his new high school, he dropped out of school and headed off to college. But he realized pretty quickly he might not quite be ready for higher education.

"It was a lot of fun," he says. "But I didn't get much studying in. So I joined the Navy at the tail end of the Vietnam War. My mom about died! I was 17, and my dad had to sign for me to get in. So that didn't cause a divorce, but I felt so sorry for her. Now that I'm older, you know, and have raised kids of my own, I've apologized."

Dayringer says serving in the armed services was different than he had imagined as a child, playing soldier in the back yard with his older brother, Steve. He had also met and married his first wife immediately after boot camp, and starting a family on his meager salary was difficult and stressful for the young couple. While Dayringer doesn't regret the time he spent serving his country, it was something of a relief to finish and pursue a career that would help him earn a better living for his young family. He was working a grueling job in heating and air conditioning installation in the booming construction market of Tulsa, Okla., when he saw a late-night commercial on television for the Tulsa fire department.

"I went in and took the test with about 1,100 people," he says. "They were going to hire around 50 out of the 1,100, and I got lucky. So I served there for 28 years and went up through the ranks -- firefighter and fire equipment operator, captain, then a district chief, then a deputy chief. And then the fire marshal.

"I decided I wanted to finish my career as the chief of a department somewhere, because I've done just about everything else -- and so Mayor Jordan's a good enough judge of character to hire me over here," he finishes with a chuckle.

Going forward

"In 2010, I was looking for a fire chief candidate who could fulfill three goals: to take the department to the next level, to take a leadership role in the region and the state, and to develop the skills of those within the chain of command," says Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan. "I am proud to say that Chief Dayringer has done so, above and beyond even my expectations."

"When someone comes in from the outside, there's always an adjustment where they have to get to know everybody," says Fayetteville Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief Brad Hardin. "He came in, and he was immediately one of the guys. He cared about us like he had always been here, which is a rare quality."

Over the past decade, Dayringer has witnessed enormous changes in Fayetteville.

"It's amazing -- when I first got here, we did a little over 7,000 calls for service a year, and last year we did almost 12,400," he says. "That's a huge increase, and the population continues to grow fast."

For a fire department to keep up with such growth, says Dayringer, it takes a city government willing to make sure its public safety services keep pace with the size of its community.

"We consider ourselves infrastructure -- just like the water lines and sewer lines," he says. "And in Fayetteville, we're lucky enough to have a mayor that thinks that, too. [Jordan] is one of the best mayors I've ever seen."

In addition to growing with the population, a fire department must also evolve along with the technology and building materials that change the nature of how quickly a house fire can consume a structure.

"Houses these days are like solidified gasoline," he says. "Everything in a home is a poly-chemical -- it's made of petroleum products. And so, in the past, you could expect a flashover in six to eight minutes. Any more? They're starting to flash over in three to five minutes. And that's why home sprinkler systems are so important. We can't get there in three minutes. Our goal is to get to all of the addresses in the city within six minutes, 90 percent of the time, and that's based on when the flashover might occur. If we can get there and get the fire out, then this room won't flash over. Once a room flashes over, the chances we can save the house go way down."

Dayringer explains that the term "flashover" refers to the point at which "the room heats and everything in the room gets to ignition temperature and then goes all at once."

"With what everything is made of now, and the chemicals that are present, it's happening faster," he concludes.

Another thing that has changed over the last four decades is the scope of emergency events the fire department is responsible for. Once upon a time, they were only called out for fire emergencies. Now, they get called out for "all kinds of rescues -- hazardous materials, aircraft firefighting, water rescues, rope rescues, confined space [rescues] and structure collapse," Dayringer explains. "We train a lot. Motor vehicle accidents are getting more and more complex. You've got to be able to figure out how to support this vehicle while you get the people out of this vehicle over here."

Changing business

One way Dayringer has personally ensured he keeps up with the changing technology, dynamics and rescue methods of the career is by pursuing more education. He holds an associate of science degree in fire detection technology, a bachelor of science degree and is also a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer program. He's been accredited as a Chief Fire Officer by the Commission of Professional Credentialing since 2005.

"It took me 28 years to get it done, but I did it," says Dayringer of his bachelor of science degree, which he started well after his family was under way. "This is a blue collar job, it's dirty and gritty and, sometimes, bloody, but we need our managers to have the skills that academia brings.

"The other thing is, the Fire Academy has an Executive Fire Officer program, which I'm a graduate of -- you have to have a bachelor's degree to get in. That's a four-year program, and you do an applied research project every year."

The results of those projects benefit the industry as a whole, says Dayringer.

"It was challenging to do, but that's the body of knowledge for our industry."

"One thing that is amazing is the way he embraces technology," says Hardin. "He's been a product of change, and he's embraced it. Sometimes, we don't like change -- we're comfortable the way we are. He's always been eager to embrace change, and that's a strong quality."

Another tectonic shift in the industry is the willingness to acknowledge that the job comes with a wealth of stress-inducing factors that could have an impact on the employee's psyche.

"Yeah, the guys deal with a lot of things," Dayringer says. "The worst thing is being helpless, or, you know, you get there too late.

"You know, years ago, nobody would admit it that it was getting to them. But Tulsa was a really progressive fire department. They put in psychological services, and we and our families could go see them any time. So I took advantage of that, and my wife did, and that helped."

"There's a higher suicide rate in fire, police and military [professions] because they're jobs where you're expected to be the hero, or the tough guy, and now you have to admit that you have a weakness, or that you're not invincible," says Hardin of the changing culture around mental health in the industry. There has long been an employee assistance program for Fayetteville Fire Department staff that includes mental health assistance, says Hardin, but in order to encourage more participation, Dayringer implemented additional supports that allowed employees and their families to access mental health support in a more private manner.

"[The department] gets a report that employees have used it, but that's all we get," says Hardin, who says that the assurance of privacy might encourage more people to take advantage of mental health support. "It's open to [staff] and their families, and nobody is ever the wiser about who is [taking advantage of the services]. [Dayringer] has never been afraid to talk about mental health or to bring it up."

It's that willingness to do what's best for his staff and his utter lack of an ego -- despite his status of Fire Chief -- that really sets Dayringer apart, says Hardin.

"For so many people, especially in leadership roles, knowledge is power -- when you possess knowledge, you possess power," he says. "He's been proactive in sharing that knowledge, and allowing himself to be vulnerable, instead of trying to keep information and knowledge to himself. And if you do something great, he'll put you in front of the City Council and let you represent your ideas as your own, instead of taking credit.

"Second big accomplishment, I think, is he works with the guys. We've got a work force of around 120 people, and he's implemented a program where we meet monthly and discuss topics that guys might be passionate about or that management might be passionate about -- and work through those as a team. He calls it the Labor Management Team, and we've worked through trying times and tough subjects using that process. It doesn't always work out, but it's been a wonderful thing -- imagine a work force where, at the lowest level, you can have input at the top."

"The mark of a great leader is to develop other leaders," says Mayor Jordan. "With Chief Dayringer, the job has never been about his own agenda, but about our city's agenda, which is to make our fire department the best it can possibly be."

He'll still worry

Dayringer acknowledges that it will be difficult to let go of a career he's held for nearly four decades, but the future looks bright, and blissfully free of midnight phone calls reporting community emergencies. And he and his wife are planning on making the ultimate commitment to the Northwest Arkansas area.

"We're going to sell our burial plots over in Oklahoma and buy some over here," he says with a chuckle. He's planning on spending some serious time with his fishing boat, he says, and visiting his three children -- of whom he is obviously and endearingly proud -- and grandchildren.

But, he says, there's one responsibility he's not sure he'll be able to fully leave behind.

"I'll always worry about them," he says of his firefighters. "But I can come and drink coffee with them. I've got a free pass."

"When he came in from the outside from another department, it was like he had always been here," says Hardin. "He cared about our guys just as much as if he had come up with them through the ranks.

"He always puts the firefighter first."

Protecting the Heroes

Any job where you are called upon to run into burning buildings on a regular basis is obviously fraught with danger. But perhaps even more insidious for firefighters are the invisible dangers they face, like the toxic material they might breathe in while putting out a fire.

David Dayringer says great strides have been made over the course of his career in protecting the health and safety of firefighters. Improvements in everything from the uniform to the oxygen capacity of the air packs mean job-related injuries have dropped over the years.

But, says Dayringer, many firefighters of his generation were not regularly encouraged to use their masks. The result, says a recent National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study, is that firefighters have had a 9 percent increase in cancer diagnoses and a 14 percent increase in cancer-related deaths when compared to the general population. In fact, Dayringer has lost many colleagues in Tulsa, Okla., to cancer-related deaths.

Several states have instituted legislation that attempts to make it easier for firefighters to receive worker’s compensation when they develop illnesses from being exposed to toxic substances on the job. Despite that legislation, though, it can still be difficult for firefighters and their families to receive appropriate compensation.

For more information on proposed legislation or legislation already in place to protect the health of firefighters, visit the First Responders Center for Excellence website at

Next Week

Nancy Preis

Eureka Springs

NAN Profiles on 06/23/2019

Print Headline: David Dayringer

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