Ask most young kids what they want to be when they grow up and chances are a firefighter might be the answer. For James Smith, this childhood dream was realized last month when he was sworn in as the new Chief of Ocean City’s Fire Department.
How long have you been a fireman? Why did you join the fire department?
I am now in my 25th year. I joined when I was 24. I liked the idea of helping people, so I followed in my dad’s footsteps, who had been a fireman. I saw the camaraderie he had with his co-workers. I love working as a team with my co-workers. We see bad things happen to people, but I can help them.
Tell more about your family history with fire fighting.
My dad was a firefighter for 41 years. He served long enough to be Deputy Chief. My uncle is a captain in Philadelphia, and my younger cousin is a firefighter there.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I wanted to be a carpenter; I always liked woodworking. But what little kid doesn’t want to be a firefighter at some point growing up?
Do you have any children, and are they interested in fire fighting?
My son at ten years old talks about it. It gives me a little pride to say I think he would do well at it.
How does this promotion make you feel?
It’s quite humbling, driving over that 9th Street bridge into the city to see the density of the structures. There’s a lot of responsibility with the position. Any fire around here could spread quickly; I’m responsible to make sure each one of my guys goes home, and everyone on the island is safe and treated professionally. It’s a monumental task.
What plans do you have for the Ocean City Fire Department in your time as Chief?
I am trying to set up the department for my successor. We are staring down a potential turnover with retirements, so I want to make sure the guys that are here are ready for the next step. There are certain processes in place that I want to streamline, and I want to make sure the guys already here are ready for that. When my retirement day comes, I want the next Chief to be able to have all of the grunt work already done, so they can take their ideas to the next level.
What are the highlights of being a fireman in Ocean City?
Being part of the solution and ingrained in the community. You’re in this neighborhood and community and get to know people. When people call the fire department distressed, it’s nice to see a friendly face show up.
What are the challenges of being a firefighter here?
Unfortunately we see people we know fall on hard times for whatever reason. People on call are losing their worldly possessions. You can try and help salvage them, but an arm around the shoulder at the end of the day is still not making those things reappear.
What is your first thought when you wake up?
I check my phone for all the calls we have had through the night, and go through in my head the schedule for the day.
Name a piece of fire fighting advice a co-worker has given to you?
Be safe. Never stop learning, read something every day. 15 minutes a day doesn’t sound like much, but if you read for just that long the time adds up.
Favorite place to eat in Ocean City?
Tony P’s Pizza or Express’ cheesesteaks. I love all the Ocean City staples.
What is your motto?
Be smart and be safe.
Who is your favorite author?
I love Dan Brown novels – the Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, I love his writing.
The Quiet Man with John Wayne from 1952.
What is a little known fact about you?
I’m a puzzle guy. Sudoku, I don’t mind doing a jigsaw. If it’s challenging, I’m on it.
Did you get to go to the Philadelphia Eagles parade?
I did! I took my son and met my cousin. We were standing at Citizen’s Bank Park, just as they Eagles came out of the parking lot. Once they passed we came right home and watched Jason Kelce’s epic speech on TV at home. ABC picked up my pictures on Twitter! It was a great event to witness, and I hope I can do the same for a Flyers parade real soon.
-Text by Nick Matousch. – Photo by Kerri Janto.