USFA Administrator Ernest Mitchell Jr.
Photo credit: U.S. Fire Administration
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A man who once had no interest whatsoever in becoming a chief is now heading the nation's fire service.
USFA Administrator Ernest Mitchell Jr. candidly admitted that as a rookie, while the idea of becoming an officer appealed to him, leading a fire department didn't.
Through the years as things changed, Mitchell took a different path.
"This is really an honor and a privilege to represent the fire and emergency services," Mitchell said in a telephone interview with Firehouse.com.
Mitchell said he is ready to tackle the emerging issues, and will be relying on his years as fire chief in California for Monrovia and Pasadena.
"Even though our budget has been cut, our mission remains the same," he said, adding that modifications may have to be made.
But he was quick to point out that it's during trying times that new and innovative ways of doing business are created.
He is confident that officials will maintain the high level of courses taught at the National Fire Academy.
Last year, 114,000 students completed on- and off-campus classes on a variety of topics. "We are working out details, but we will be offering a blended learning approach."
He said the NFA has established a reputation for quality courses taught by top-notch instructors, and he is committed to keeping that intact. Mitchell added that the USFA made the right decision by including an EMS curriculum.
"Everyone knows they are the majority of our responses."
Mitchell, who represented the fire service on a sub-committee of the House Science and Technology Committee for seven years, said the experience gave him an idea how things work in Washington. "I always had the chance to speak up, and ask them to remember their decisions would impact local departments.
Among other things that Mitchell promises won't take a backseat regardless of how bad the economy gets are firefighter safety and fire prevention.
"We will remain vigilant in the way we operate, and that includes the increasing focus on firefighter health and safety. We have come a long way, but there is still so much to do. We've been fortunate that there have been fewer firefighter deaths the past few years."
Driver education training and the use of seat belts are important to keep the number of injuries and deaths down.
He remembers riding the back step of a fire engine racing to calls, and how they balked when they were told they had to take a seat inside. When seat belts were installed, they had umpteen excuses why they couldn't buckle up.
Now, however, he believes everyone should be buckled up every time. "I know it's been said a lot, but we can't be of help, if we don't get there."
He's seen how the death of a firefighter impacts family, coworkers and friends. As a regional advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Mitchell instructed the Everyone Goes Home program that promotes safe practices.
"I will continue to assist the foundation in their mission which I support."
He also sees the agency maintaining its involvement with fire prevention initiatives.
Mitchell is looking forward to speaking for responders when he goes to hearings on the Hill.
Early next year, his agency will be front and center as legislators discuss the re-authorization of the USFA.
"We'll also be working with fire officials as they try to maximize their dollars. I know the grants have been cut, and it's a tough financial atmosphere out there."
Throughout the interview, Mitchell vowed that he will do everything possible to make a difference.
Prior to getting the call about whether he'd be interested in the position, Mitchell had pretty much settled into semi-retirement enjoying spending time with his wife, children and grandchildren.
"I wouldn't have come back to work for just any job," he said with a laugh. "But, this is certainly an honor."