Firehouse Interview: Gregory B. Cade: The New U.S. Fire Administrator

On May 25, 2007, the U.S. Senate confirmed Fire Chief Gregory B. Cade to be administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration, part of the Department of Homeland Security. He succeeds Fire Chief R. David Paulison, who is now the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Cade, a 39-year veteran of the fire service, began his career as a volunteer firefighter in Prince George's County, MD, and became a career PGFD firefighter in 1971. He eventually served as bureau chief of administrative services and bureau chief of fire suppression, before being selected as the Hampton, VA, fire chief in 1992. Since 1998, Cade has been the Virginia Beach, VA, fire chief/emergency management coordinator, overseeing a multi-service agency of career personnel and volunteers. He is currently completing course work for a master's degree in public safety leadership from Old Dominion University. He holds a bachelor of science degree in fire administration (with honors) from the University of Maryland/College Park and an associate's degree in fire science from Prince George's Community College. In addition, he completed the Senior Executives in State and Local Government Program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The interview was conducted by Firehouse® Magazine Contributing Editor Charles Werner, chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department.

FIREHOUSE: How did you become interested in the U.S. Fire Administrator position?

CADE: I became interested in the position when I was approached by then Under Secretary of Preparedness George Foresman. George and I had worked together on many projects while he was with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and later when he was Deputy Assistant to the Governor for Commonwealth Preparedness. He and I met in 2006 at the Congressional Fire Services Institute Dinner and had a chance to talk and I agreed to send him my resume and that was the beginning of the process.

FIREHOUSE: What are first impressions and/or desires going into the position?

CADE: My first impressions of going into this position is what an awesome opportunity, as well as an awesome responsibility, to help shape and set the agenda for the national fire service at the federal level. Although I have been in the fire service for 39 years, it is still somewhat intimidating to think that I have been given this opportunity, albeit for a short time. I have not only the opportunity, but also the responsibility to try and help shape that agenda to improve upon the capabilities of the people who work in this wonderful profession.

FIREHOUSE: What has been the most rewarding experience during your fire service career?

CADE: Having been in the fire service for 39 years, it is very difficult to sit and point to one thing that I could say was my most rewarding experience during my fire service career. I have had the good fortune to have been associated with three outstanding fire departments and have been given tremendous opportunities as a result of that.

Fundamentally, the most rewarding experience out of all of that has been my opportunity to come in contact with some of the most outstanding, innovative and creative people that exist anywhere in the world, and not only just those individuals who spend their time and efforts in the fire service, but all of the other ancillary things that they do. The fire service is a unique profession, full of truly unique people and having had the opportunity to travel across this great country, as well as internationally, and meet and talk and learn from all of those people, truly has expanded me. That is what I reflect back on most often.

FIREHOUSE: What would you consider your greatest fire service accomplishment and why?

CADE: I think my greatest fire service accomplishment has been the small part, and it was a very small part, that I played in helping to take the Safety Committee and turn it into the Safety, Health and Survival Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). Firefighter safety has been an extremely important issue to me throughout my fire service career and helping to broaden that base of support from a very small group of people into now a very large section has had an impact on firefighter safety and, hopefully, will continue to do so as the section grows and continues to bring in more innovative and creative ideas.

FIREHOUSE: What was your most disappointing experience(s) in the fire service and why?

CADE: I think the most disappointing thing for me in my fire service career really has been the criticism that comes with being the chief of the department and not that it is aimed at me because I realize that that comes with the territory, but I think the impact that it had on my family. They didn't sign up to be in the fire service nor did they sign up to be the fire chief; I did. I have seen the pain in their eyes when for whatever reasons, whether it's people or other organizations, have done or said things and portrayed me in a manner that didn't match the truth. I think all of us who sit in positions of chiefs of departments recognize, unfortunately, that comes with the territory, but I think its effect on my family has always been the most disappointing part.

FIREHOUSE: Following 9/11, how did your life change professionally and personally and why?

CADE: The events of 9/11 changed me both professionally and personally because of many reasons. The first was the fact that I had the opportunity to be at the Pentagon shortly after the attack and then to go up to the World Trade Center. Unfortunately, I lost personal friends when those towers came down. People that I had worked with in the New York City Fire Department and had come to be my personal friends and professional colleagues. I guess the way that it changed me was to recognize how unprepared I was as a chief of a major metropolitan department to even think about something like that being possible.

From a professional standpoint, it forced me to begin to take a much broader look at what were the potential impacts to the City of Virginia Beach. What were the things that I needed to do to prepare the officers and firefighters of the Virginia Beach Fire Department? For me personally, it was seeing the utter devastation and walking through the Pentagon at 3 o'clock in the morning or Ground Zero in the evening, and watching the firefighters dealing with that horrible situation, never giving up and never straying. They worked diligently to make sure that if it was possible that anyone was alive that they were going to save them. I was extremely proud to be up there at the Pentagon and see firsthand, my dear friends in the Arlington County Fire Department and the chief officers there and what they were doing and especially to see firsthand Virginia Task Force 2 at work. The look of resolve on their faces throughout that horrible situation and the inventiveness and creativity that they brought to that unbearable situation was nothing less than remarkable.

I think it's impossible for any of us in the fire service to look back at the tragedies of those days and say it didn't change all of us. Their heroism inspired us to be a better firefighter and reminded us to hug our loved ones a little bit tighter, more often and always strive to make a difference.

FIREHOUSE: Is there anything that after looking back that you would change or do differently? What and why?

CADE: When I look back over my 39-year career, I am sure there are things and mistakes that I made that, in hindsight, I wish I had not done, but more importantly these were opportunities where I learned and grew. One thing that I have learned is that this is the best job that anyone could ever have. I have been extremely fortunate to have spent my whole adult life doing what I love to do — being a member of the fire service and having a chance to make a difference in people's lives. I know many people who go to work at jobs that pay a whole lot better and have better benefits than what I made throughout my fire service career, but I don't think anybody ever had the enjoyment and fulfillment that I have had being a member of the fire service.

FIREHOUSE: Working within the federal government has its unique challenges. How will your personal relationships help to create a positive working environment?

CADE: I have been very fortunate throughout my career not only to have worked in three outstanding fire departments, but also to have been given the opportunities as a result of that to be engaged in and work on a number of significant fire service issues. That has allowed me to develop meaningful relationships throughout the world. It is my intent to use what I have learned from those vast experiences and the relationships that I have forged throughout my career to help move the U.S. Fire Administration forward. I have been blessed with many great personal and organizational relationships and I plan to bring them with me to the federal conversation.

FIREHOUSE: From your fire service experiences, what organization in which you have been actively involved has impressed you the most and why?

CADE: I have been involved in quite a few fire service organizations, at the management level, as well as early in my career with labor organizations. I think the one that I have enjoyed the most out of all of those, and it is difficult to point to just one, but probably the most unique one has been my good fortune to be associated with the United States/United Kingdom Chief Officer Symposium. It has always been refreshing and invigorating to meet with and discuss issues with my fellow chief officers from other parts of the world. You find out that a lot of the problems that are faced here in the United States are the same ones that are faced by fire chiefs in England, Scotland, Ireland, Finland, Israel and so many other places. I have been able to learn a lot and, quite frankly, steal some of their ideas and put into practice. Through that association we were able to establish an officer exchange program that provided some unique perspectives to our organization by giving them a chance to talk to people who had been dealing with some issues similar to our own.

Shortly after 9/11, one of the officer-exchange programs brought a chief fire officer from the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade here to Virginia Beach. What better way to find out about fighting fires in a terrorist environment than to have a chief officer from a department who dealt with it day in and day out. He provided that experience and knowledge base to our people on how to be effective at doing it because the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade has done an outstanding job of being able to balance the needs of the community versus the situation that they were in. That chief fire officer's 20-plus years of experience was very beneficial to hear and helped us learn from their experiences and practices.

FIREHOUSE: Who was the most influential person in your career and why?

CADE: I have been very fortunate, as I've said before, to have had the opportunity to meet and become friends with so many influential fire service people that it would be difficult for me to pick out one as the most influential. I have had the good fortune to be friends with and get to know on a very personal level Alan Brunacini, Harry Carter, Ron Coleman, just to name a few, the icons of the fire service. I remember a couple of years ago when Fire Chief magazine did a series on the most influential people in the fire service, and as I read through the articles outlining the various individuals, one of the things that struck me was how fortunate I was to get to know many of them and listen to the insights that they had shared with me.

Having started in Prince George's County, the first fire chief that I worked for when I started was Bill Clark, right after he had left New York City. I didn't realize at the time how lucky I was, even though he was only there for a short time. When I look back at all of the other people who came through the Prince George's County Fire Department, I realized that they were attracted there by either by the University of Maryland or by the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute. Many of the people in leadership positions in the fire service today came through these fine institutions and it was my good fortune to have had the opportunity to be influenced by each.

FIREHOUSE: What insights have you gained about the fire service through your experiences at the different places where you have worked?

CADE: Having had the good fortune to have worked in three different fire departments, plus all of the other activities that I have been involved in, I think the biggest insight that I have gained is that if you are going to be successful, that success is predicated on building relationships with people because at the end of the day, it's truly what carries you forward and makes coming to work fun.

FIREHOUSE: If you had one specific accomplishment that you could achieve for the fire service, what would it be and why?

CADE: If there was one specific accomplishment that I look at for the future of the fire service that I think is critical, it lies in our ability to use the talent that we have and thoroughly analyze what is taking place and to translate that into comprehensive, well-thought-out, and well-articulated data-supported plans. I watch my brethren in the other public safety arena, i.e., law enforcement, and they can make the statistical argument why the color of their officers' shoes makes a difference in the crime rate. I know this sounds funny, and I am being somewhat facetious, but I think that the fire service must recognize and embrace the fact that just being able to extinguish an emergency fire incident is not enough to get the resources needed to do your job effectively and efficiently into the future.

FIREHOUSE: How have fire service relationships shaped your career?

CADE: I have spent my whole adult life in the fire service, since the age of 18. I have had the good fortune to have an extreme amount of positive experiences, coupled with a few mediocre and rare bad ones. Throughout all of that, I have been able to make, establish and still maintain some very strong relationships. Although I graduated from the first career recruit school in Prince George's County in 1971, I am still close personal friends with each and every one of the people in that class. Although I have been gone from that department for 15 years, when we see each other, we just pick up where we left off. All of that affects what you do and who you are. As I responded to an earlier question, I have probably learned and reinforced that whole idea, it is about the relationships that you build with people that makes you effective in being able to do your job.

FIREHOUSE: When you learned that you would be nominated for this honorable position, how did that make you feel?

CADE: When I first got the call and was notified that I was going to be nominated by the President, it was a very humbling experience and at the same time, a very exciting one. I think for any of us who get to be a fire chief of an organization, we think and look upon that as the pinnacle of our career. I never dreamed that the President of the United States would even consider me for a position like this and I think then it became a little scary recognizing the awesome responsibility that I will be accepting. As local fire chiefs, we have often talked about the need for the federal government to be able to do this or do that to help us do our jobs better, and now, for however long I sit in that seat, I am going to be the person that the fire service will be looking to that will help and explain the needs of the fire service at the federal level. I hope and intend to do the fire service proud.

FIREHOUSE: Looking back, what will you miss from a local fire service perspective the most and why?

CADE: I think what I'm going to miss more than anything else is that for the first time in my 39 years, I'm not going to be directly connected to a specific fire department and able to put on my gear and step on a fireground as a firefighter or an officer. I know that I will still have many, many positive relationships with so many fire service people. However, it will not be the same thing to know that when my two feet hit the floor in the morning, that I don't have a uniform to put on or a fire department to be a part of. That saddens me to a certain extent, but then I temper that with what I have always said that my goal and my job was to make sure that every firefighter had the resources that they needed to be safe and effective in providing the services that they are charged to do. I am going to have the opportunity to do that at the federal level.

FIREHOUSE: Looking forward, what do you see as a vision for yourself and your career?

CADE: As I look forward, what I hope to be able to do is to bring my 39 years of street-level experience to the federal conversation. I know that the outstanding people who work in the federal government care about the fire service. They recognize the job that the first responders do. I think at times there is so much going on in the battle for resources that sometimes the fire service voice gets lost. We certainly have raised our level of conversation over the last 20 years, with outstanding people like Garry Briese, who drove the IAFC to be out there on the forefront, a voice and influence for the fire service. I think the opportunity exists to partner with all of the national organizations, like the IAFC, National Volunteer Fire Council, the International Association of Fire Fighters or the many others. We need to make sure that our collective voice is heard, continues to be heard, and that it is heard and understood. I will push that conversation at the federal level for as long as I serve as the fire administrator and for as long as the President of the Untied States is pleased with the job that I do.

FIREHOUSE: What are your hopes for the fire service?

CADE: My hope for the fire service is that it continues to bring the various voices into a central conversation that identifies and hones in on a few key areas that are going to make the most significant difference in health and safety for every firefighter. While the fire service is doing a much better job, there is so much more we can do together. We are still losing firefighters in 2007; that should NOT be occurring.

FIREHOUSE: If there is one message that you would like to share to your extended fire service family, what would that message convey?

CADE: The message that I would like to share is that looking out for each other is the most important thing that you can do. This can and must be done by creating a culture of safety an integral part of everyone's fire service life. It begins with the individual and that commitment to safety permeates the whole organization. I tell our firefighters every chance I get that my goal as fire chief is always to be there at 8 o'clock in the morning when the shift changes and that everybody who came to work the day before goes home.

FIREHOUSE: What are your thoughts about the National Fire Academy?

CADE: I think the National Fire Academy is an outstanding learning institution and the best fire service leadership training facility in the world. I have had the good fortune to be associated with the NFA as a student and as an instructor. I have observed the care and love that is extended to every student. The staff's dedication is repeatedly demonstrated as they develop programs that meet their true goal to produce a well-educated and well-prepared fire service.

There is no doubt that the full-time instructional staff, the contract instructional staff and the support personnel have a collective goal that is focused on that primary mission and they have been successful for a long time. They are all professional and knowledgeable, yet they never feel they've done enough and they always strive to do more. I am proud to be associated with every one of them and I look forward to the opportunity to work with and support them in the future.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the leadership of Dr. Denis Onieal, who has been the driving force that has inspired the continued evolution of this great fire service institution. I look forward to working with my good and long-time friend.

FIREHOUSE: What would you say about your fire department family that you leave behind in Virginia Beach?

CADE: The Virginia Beach Fire Department is full of so many talented and outstanding people that I have had the good fortune of being associated with. When I look at the number of people who come from literally across the world to be associated with us, either as a training venue, partnering with us on special programs, or just coming to visit and see how the Virginia Beach Fire Department operates, it is always a humbling experience. I am going to miss being associated with my extended Virginia Beach family. However, they are always a part of me and will always be in my thoughts. They are, day in and day out, a group of the most innovative and creative people that I have ever known

While I have tried to support their talents and creativity, I often learned that the most important thing that I could do was to open the door of opportunity and move out of their way. I am going to miss them, but luckily for me, I'll still have the opportunity to drop by the station and maybe have a cup of coffee every now and then.