What is in this article?:
- 2012 Career Chief of the Year: Kelvin Cochran
- Cochran on Volunteerism
Career Chief of the Year Kelvin Cochran knows that the more you learn,
the more you are capable of serving.
(Appeared in print as "Born to Serve")
Kelvin J. Cochran was 5 years old and living in a shotgun house in Shreveport, La., when the house across the street from him caught fire.
“I watched with tremendous amazement as the firefighters got off the big, red truck and put on their long, black rubber boots and black helmets and took the hose into Miss Matty’s house,” Cochran said. “I was totally smitten, and from that day forward that’s all I ever wanted to do.”
And that’s exactly what he’s done for the last 31 years. Cochran began his career as a firefighter in Shreveport and eventually became that department’s chief. In January 2008, he left Shreveport to become chief of Atlanta Fire Rescue. He left that post in October 2009 when President Obama appointed him U.S. fire administrator. He returned to Atlanta nine months later for his second stint as fire chief.
And now Cochran is FIRE CHIEF’s 2012 Career Chief of the Year.
Here, he shares the lessons he’s learned from serving his community and his country.
You spent nine years as a training officer in Shreveport. What prompted you to focus on training?
When I was going through the recruit academy, the training officers in Shreveport were such tremendous professionals and role models. They demonstrated such passion for the job and knowledge for training us that I set my sights on becoming a training officer.
After four years, we had a tragedy that actually cost the life of a training officer and permanently disabled another one. We had a cold-storage explosion and that was back in the early days when the training officers were the hazmat team. Two vacancies came about as a result of that tragedy. I had a chance to promote to a captain of the Shreveport Fire Department for training. It was an opportunity to carry on the legacy of those two outstanding officers that taught me when I was a rookie.
Was your experience as a training officer a good foundation for becoming a fire chief?
Absolutely. After achieving one goal and then another, my passion and vision for what we do in the fire service just continues to grow and with that growth, I wanted to make an impact. The more I learned and the education I gained increased my capacity to serve at a higher level, so I pursued promotional opportunities so I could serve at a higher level. It is still one of the driving forces of my fire-service career.
As a firefighter, you earned your bachelor’s degree in organizational management and as a fire chief you pursued a master’s in industrial organizational management. What motivated you to find the time?
It was a challenge, but I knew that I would limit myself if I didn’t pursue higher education. The passion on the inside had to be supported by higher education. So, I actually quit a lucrative part-time job so I could complete my degree in organizational management. I achieved that degree just in time for the fire chief vacancy in Shreveport. Had I not completed that degree, I would not have become the fire chief in Shreveport.
Two years after serving as fire chief, I felt it was absolutely essential that I return to college and get a master’s degree. My passion for organizational management was tremendous, because every class I took in that curriculum applied to my leadership. It applied to my depth of knowledge, so it was just a perfect fit to get in the master's program for industrial organizational management. As a fire chief, I was tremendously busy. But I had to make it work, so I took one class per year to get my master’s degree.
When you look back at your time as fire chief of Shreveport, what are you most proud of?
The thing that I’m most proud of is that we began a participative management culture that I realized to meet our full potential. We had to develop a process whereby we gained the best ideas from all ranks in the Shreveport Fire Department. We developed a strategic planning team that included drivers, captains, middle staff, firefighters, chiefs and administrative staff. We worked diligently to develop a vision for the Shreveport Fire Department expressed in a strategic plan.
We remained committed to our strategic plan and engaged in a public-education and public-information plan in the community that raised our credibility tremendously and informed the community of our needs. I’m pleased to say that my friend and colleague Brian Crawford recently told me that every one of the initiatives from that strategic plan have been completed. It took 10 years to complete a five-year plan, but I believe if we had not had participation from all those people, we might not have been as successful.
Many chiefs have complained it is difficult to develop a strategic plan in this turbulent economy. Do you have a strategic plan for Atlanta?
Absolutely, I think it is absolutely essential. … If fire chiefs are not developing strategic plans right now, then we will not be in a position to take advantage of the economic upswing when our communities begin to rebound.
This is the time to determine our immediate and our long-term needs, back them up with data and science, and begin to communicate what the real impact is to those in local government and the community. When our community’s coffers begin to bounce back, it positions the fire department to be funded right on the front end. If fire chiefs wait until things get better and then develop strategic plans and communicate those plans, we are going to be way behind police, water, and parks departments. Those commissioners forecasting their future needs are going to have a tremendous advantage over fire chiefs and fire departments.
While U.S. fire administrator, you wrote: “As a leader you have a choice of being a passive victim of your circumstances or an active hero of your organization.” You certainly appear to be active, no matter where you are.
I was in Atlanta 20 months before being called to the U.S. Fire Administration. I arrived in Atlanta at the very outset of the economic downturn in the city and experienced tremendous budget cuts that first year I was fire chief. We abolished 120 positions, laid-off 27 firefighters, combined two divisions of labor in to one, decommissioned our only heavy-rescue truck, closed Fire Station No. 7, had brownouts and dropped our insurance service rating to a Class 3. It was a tremendous experience, but I thank God I was the fire chief at that time because it caused me to draw on all of the training I received at the National Fire Academy, all of the training I received at Wiley College and Louisiana Tech, and all the faith that I had built up over the years to get us through those difficult years.
In spite of all those budget reductions, our department remained very strong — no labor-management disputes, and we embarked on the greatest public-education campaign in the history of our department, informing citizens how and why those cuts were made to the service levels. Because of the leadership role I provided during that time, the mayor of Atlanta recruited me back from the U.S. Fire Administration. He was a senator for the state of Georgia and observant of what was taking place. He said my leadership during that difficult time was the very reason why he wanted to bring me back as fire chief, and also promised to restore the things we previously had to cut.
That was music to my ears. You can imagine how it feels to be under Mayor Kassim Reed and to be restoring all those things and more — even though the economy hasn’t bounced back like we had hoped. A lot of those things are back in the department.