CP Interview: City of Orlando Fire Chief Roderick S. Williams

Fire Chief Roderick Williams describes himself as a hometown kid who is proud to serve the city he loves. Williams, 47, Orlando’s 19th fire chief, oversees a staff of nearly 600 employees, including 523 firefighters. He and his wife have three girls and love giving back to their community. The chief was animated, open and engaging during our interview and was especially enthusiastic when talking about how proud he is of the Orlando Fire Department.

You’re a graduate of Jones High School. Did you envision becoming the chief of the Orlando Fire Department?

I did not see that. I had plans to be a nurse or an accountant. I stopped by the fire station at Parramore and Central, Station 2, for a blood pressure check. A lieutenant talked to me about the fire service. I was almost 20 years old, and he talked to me about the benefits of being a firefighter. He touched a chord, and I pondered it, and I took the plunge. My first job was in the Winter Haven Fire Department in 1994.

You’ve been with the Orlando Fire Department 22 years. What was one of your greatest career highlights?

When I got promoted to lieutenant. It was an opportunity for me to lead my own team at the old Station 1 on Rosalind. Getting that red helmet — when you come on the fire department you get a black helmet. When you make company officer they give you a red helmet, and no matter what scene you are on, that signifies that person is in charge. He or she is the first line of defense for that crew. The tradition and pride mean so much to me.

In just a couple of years, you’ve dealt with two major incidents: the Pulse Nightclub tragedy and Hurricane Irma. Your reflections?

When I think about the Pulse Nightclub I think about the … lives lost. Seeing what the families went through. The first responders, both the firefighters and the police officers, had to show courage under fire, to treat, to minimize and stop the threat. My heart goes out to the first responders on the front line. You carry that for the rest of your life.

With the hurricane, we all worked as a city to say, “How do we get ready?” Emergency operations were up and running four to five days before the storm hit. We gave the residents all the warnings we could about getting ready. We did public service announcements about generators, like to make sure you use your generator outside in a well-ventilated area. We were on TV and used social media.

After the storm, we used our brand-new drone to look at some of the neighborhoods, especially some of the bigger trees in backyards with downed power lines that you could not get to yet. We utilized all of our technologies available to us throughout and after the storm to make sure our residents were safe and some type of normalization was happening.

Technology has changed your industry.

We have two drones — one for the arson and bomb unit used for suspicious packages or some type of aerial shots for fires if we have something in the woods, for example. Or even for a building fire. We are technology-driven from the simplest thing, like data as we look at things like response times, but also when we are helping our neighbors. We have a PulsePoint application for CPR you can download on your phone, and it will let you know where the closest AED [automated external defibrillator] is.

What do you do for fun?

I was born and raised in Orlando with four siblings. I love this city. I do a lot of community events. I play golf anywhere I can get a game. I like it, but I’m not good! It takes time. I’m taking lessons and trying to get better. I’m good with the driver; I can get on the green. But my short game is terrible.

What instilled your “community service, give back” mentality?

My father passed when I was 7. I grew up with a single mom. I had grandparents who were instrumental in my development and growth and being a part, being connected. Every teacher I had said, “Always be connected to your community.” For me, it’s gratifying to be able to do something for somebody. Being in the fire service, they appreciate you, they thank you, from a child to an older person, they truly appreciate you. This community has taken care of me, and everything I am I owe back.

The fire department has a dragon boat. Why is it important to connect with the kids on the team?

When I was selected as fire chief, there were pillars I wanted to stand on: safety, accountability, training and development, succession planning, and last and most important was outreach and community support. I saw the boat — and it’s a dragon — with fire, and it makes sense we have a boat. We partnered with the Boys & Girls Club[s of Central Florida], and it was an opportunity for us to show young kids an alternative in life. Firefighting is a noble profession; if you really want to give back to people, this is the best job to do and get the reward at the same time. Dragon boating was one of the best experiences — what a great group of kids. We won our race in our division; it was our first race, and we placed gold in our division. I see us being a rock for these children. We’re the Orlando Fire Dragons, with 10 to 12 kids involved the first year.

It’s easy to see that you are very proud of your department.

The Orlando Fire Department has been around 132 years serving this community. And we love serving the community. We have some of the best-trained, most dedicated personnel in the entire fire industry. Because of that, we have gained national prominence of being in the top 1 percent of all fire departments. Every time a firefighter walks in your house, you know you have the best and that they care about the citizens. They care about this community. We are dedicated to giving the best service. Our goal is to do more. We want to be there for you.

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