Kelvin Cochran was appointed administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) on Aug. 27, 2009. Cochran has 28 years of experience in preventing and responding to fires and emergencies, including firefighting, EMS, hazardous materials, public...
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In the City of Atlanta, I experienced a completely different set of circumstances. From the time of my arrival, we were (I think) the first major city to be impacted by the economic downturn. Tremendous budget challenges (included) closing Fire Station 7, eliminating a heavy rescue truck, abolishing 120 sworn positions and laying off about 15 civilians and 27 firefighters, brownouts, blackouts; you name it, it was a very dark time as far as getting accomplishments that fire chiefs have been able to tout for years like those that I experienced in Shreveport. They just didn't happen in Atlanta the 20 months I was there. Nevertheless, and in spite of all those challenges, I do tout and am very proud of the fact that to get through all of that we had tremendous unified leadership effort by the middle- and upper-level managers of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department with input from Local 134 Brothers Combined and other younger members in the department who did not really have any rank. We all worked together as leaders to get our fire department through this difficult time.
On the heels of all these challenges, we were simultaneously engaged in a tremendous public information and public education campaign through neighborhood associations and neighborhood planning units and with the media. Now, the City of Atlanta is a better-informed and better-educated public about the operations of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department and the impact of not being adequately funded so much that I believe it will be very high on the political agenda for the upcoming mayor's race to restore to the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department the things that have been lost. The community and the elected support are tremendous because of how we communicated and educated the public during that tremendous downturn in the economy and the impact on the City of Atlanta.
FIREHOUSE: Your election to IAFC second vice president had established your path to become the IAFC president this year. Your decision to take the Atlanta fire chief position and no longer pursue the IAFC role must have been difficult. Can you talk about your decision process and the factors that helped you make that decision?
COCHRAN: Being a person of Christian faith, one of the things that I did a lot in that hard decision process was to pray about it. Then, the second thing that I did was to talk with my wife and family. I've always believed that any opportunities that come our way for advancement, it's truly God leading you to another rung toward your destiny. It also includes being able to take care of and sustaining your family and that your family will never suffer as a result of your promotion or advancement in your profession. After talking to God and Carolyn, I just knew it was the right thing to do.
Giving up the advancement to the president of the IAFC; I had a lot of reservations because it is a rare opportunity for fire service leaders to serve the international fire service leader association. Strangely enough, I just had some comfort that there were going to be other opportunities that would allow me to serve the nation at that level somehow, some way. And in my limited way to forecast that I was just thinking, after Chief Luther Fincher serves out his term on the IAFC Executive Board, that I would pursue the Metro Chiefs representative to the IAFC Board and that would be a way that I could serve. Then, hopefully, around 2011–2012, I would get to run for second vice president again. Out of nowhere, the opportunity to serve as United States Fire Administrator came along and it really fulfills and exceeds the desire I had to serve at the national level.
FIREHOUSE: You are well known as an inspiring leader and your keynote at the 2009 Fire Rescue International conference ("Becoming Fully Involved") was very focused, stimulating and engaging. Explain briefly why this message and the timing of it are so important.
COCHRAN: The United States of America is in a state where tough times for all Americans is the new normal. We have not gone through a period like this since the Great Depression. However, we have a history of being a nation of overcomers and there are so many milestones in our past where we were faced with great challenges as a nation. We have overcome every last one of them.
We are going to be in this for at least the next three years and as fire service leaders we cannot wait for times to get better or for the world to change; we have to become "world changers." Our focus should be as world changers. The part that we play in our communities and the leadership roles that we have in our fire service organizations, whether it is local, state or federal; we all have a part to play. Thought one person can make a difference, we cannot do it alone. The leaders of the fire service organizations, no matter how influential or powerful they may be, cannot do it alone. It takes everyone in every organization becoming "fully involved" from the firefighter to the fire chief to the IAFC president to the president of the IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters) and even the United States Fire Administrator. We all have to become "fully involved" and that is to rely on the legacy of hope, optimism and resilience we all have inherited from our forefathers and parents who have gone through those tremendous times of our past.