“My job is wonderful,” says Martin Senterfitt, Director/Fire Chief of the City of Jacksonville. “I help people for a living. Whether it’s a heart attack or a house fire, or a large plate of glass hanging off of a 20-story window in a building, if there’s a problem and people don’t know how to fix it, they call the fire rescue department.”
He estimates that over the course of his career, he has responded to about 40,000 calls.
Senterfitt comes from a strong tradition of safety and rescue service. His father and an uncle were professional firefighters, and four uncles were volunteer firefighters. Two brothers are police officers. His father wanted Senterfitt to earn a college degree after high school, but firefighting was a stronger calling. He returned to school later in life, earning a Master’s degree in 2005. Senterfitt has served the city of Jacksonville for most of his 28-year career, occasionally being dispatched to other regions to assist with disasters.
Emergency management in Jacksonville is unique because of the positive relationships among the city’s departments, says Senterfitt. Good relationships matter a lot. “In Jacksonville, since we started as a smaller community and grew together, we’ve had incredible success. We’ve worked hard for the fire department and the police department to be on the same page.” In many other cities across the nation, firefighters and police officers are at odds, but good emergency management is all about establishing and maintaining relationships, he says. “If you look at our disaster history in the nation, we fail when the relationships fail. As soon as we start going into our silos and separating, we fail.”
There are some emergency calls the Fire Chief will never forget, particularly the T2 Laboratories chemical plant explosion in December 2007. Off duty the day of the massive fire and explosion that killed four people and injured dozens, he says he was the first firefighter to the scene when he heard the explosion and saw the mushroom cloud. A tragic event, he says it could have been worse. “We were going into this call knowing that there was a fifty percent chance some officers would be killed that day,” he says. “But we still had to go rescue the civilians who were trapped.” A critically injured man was in the middle of one of the most dangerous spots in the fire, “a massive inferno,” he recalls. “Thank the Lord, no one died that day on the fire department.” They saved almost three dozen people from the explosion, including that man. “It was the most trying, dangerous rescue, but it was also the most rewarding one,” Senterfitt says.
The city’s call volume is large and varied, and the “relative magnitude” of emergencies can pose a problem, he says. Firefighters typically respond to between 10 and 20 calls in a 24-hour shift that can vary from a toothache to a massive car wreck. The transition from a critically wounded patient to a minor medical issue can be difficult. “If the last call that a firefighter went on was a cardiac arrest to a nine-month-old baby, and the next call is someone who simply has a toothache, it’s hard to quickly adjust and to show the same level of empathy and compassion,” he says.
The bottom line is that fire and rescue is a difficult job, but also a very rewarding one, Senterfitt says. Everyone appreciates a hero. “Every call we go to, we’re the good guys.”