USFA Deputy Administrator Readies for Retirement

April 23, 2008
On Thursday afternoon, USFA Deputy Administrator Charlie Dickinson will be headed for retirement -- again.

EMMITSBURG, Md. -- On Thursday afternoon, USFA Deputy Administrator Charlie Dickinson will be headed for retirement -- again.

But, there isn't a rocking chair out there with his name on it just yet.

"Sit around? I don't have time. I have things to do, and that's not on the list," he said with a laugh Wednesday morning.

Eight years ago when he arrived on campus to campus to teach, the retired Pittsburgh chief soon found himself on a blue ribbon panel helping to write an action plan for the USFA.

"I had been here for courses in the past. But, I had no idea about the scope or size of the mission at the USFA."

But, he learned quickly. "We carry the banners of every fire department in America. We are their ombudsmen, their champions. We need to push agendas, be the explainers. We have to train the leaders whether they are volunteers or career."

Dickinson isn't one to talk about himself or his accomplishments. He'd rather talk about things that have happened to the fire service and the mark the USFA is having.

"Thrilled, absolutely thrilled that's how I felt when Dave Paulison asked me to take this job. He knew he'd be spending a lot of time in Washington. Dave and I had known each other for years because of working on various committees.

When Paulison was tapped for the FEMA position, Dickinson found himself heading the USFA. But, he wasn't interested in taking the job fulltime. He promised his longtime friend he would stay on board until a new administrator was appointed, and help that person get started.

"This was supposed to be a part-time job," he said during an earlier interview. "At least that's what I've been telling my wife, Lil."

He has seen a number of changes during his tenure, and believes the USFA has done a good job in keeping in stride. "You fight like you train, they say. We have to supply the knowledge that the managers, the chiefs need to lead their departments. There is a great deal of responsibility. Think about that person's job entails."

Enhancements to data bases soon will enable officers to find similar size departments to compare response times, equipment, training, personnel and other issues. Doing that type of analysis manually is too time-consuming.

Also, reducing classes from 10 to six days is a good idea. "It's keeping them at home and at their departments. They're not here two weekends."

Dickinson said he is pleased that under DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, the fire service now has a seat at the table with other intelligence agencies. "He understands the importance of the fire chief needing to know when there is information about a threat. Fire and EMS are on the front lines. They need to know not only how to protect their communities, but themselves. They have to be prepared."

He was quick to point out that the USFA wouldn't be what it is today without the support of fire service organizations.

There is a realignment taking place within the USFA, and he believes the move will strengthen the agency.

While fire safety education and prevention are not fully embraced by firefighters, that's not the case here. "Many know that the best work a firefighter can do is not to have to respond in the first place."

He said the stance of USFA Administrator Greg Cade toward home sprinklers should send a loud, clear message. "As a firefighter, he knows the importance of sprinklers..."

While ordinances requiring the sprinklers are a local or state issue, the USFA stands ready to assist with data, he said.

It also would behoove firefighters everywhere to become more involved in educating the public about smoke detectors as well.

He praised his staff for their dedication, adding that it was fun being part of the team.

In the dining hall Wednesday afternoon, he greeted and chatted with a number of the dining workers. There were plenty of hugs, handshakes and pats on the back.

At 70, Dickinson has a number of irons in the fire. One of those is getting involved with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, which is very dear to his heart.

"I've always admired the work they do, and I'm looking forward to becoming part of it," he said, adding that one of his functions will be liaison to the fire service organizations.

Dickinson, who started in the fire service in 1962 in Hayward, Cal., said he'll never forget the mentors he had along the way. "I wouldn't be where I am today, if someone wouldn't have shown me the way..."

He has quite a few things Lil wants him to catch up on around the house. But, his dance card is quickly filling up.

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