CEDAR RAPIDS — Gregory T. Smith, 49, was appointed earlier this month as the 14th chief in the history of the Cedar Rapids Fire Department, which turns 150 this year.
Smith had served in the department since 1994 and became assistant fire chief eight years ago. He served on the team responsible for relocating and designing the new Central Fire Station and Fire Station 3 after the flood of 2008, spearheaded the accreditation process for the fire department, and has served as the on-scene incident commander for high-profile events, including the Sinclair meatpacking plant fire.
Q: What made you want to work professionally in firefighting?
A: It was born from my dad’s interest — my dad was in the volunteer side of things — and evolved from there. My dad was a volunteer at the Swea City Fire Department. My mom was a nurse, and they were both EMTs (emergency medical technicians). My dad would regularly respond for ambulance calls. My mom would assist occasionally if needed but not on a regular basis. Sometimes I would go with my dad when he would turn on sirens for tornadoes. When I was in college, (at Iowa State University) my mom and dad said I could take EMT class. I figured after college I would be a volunteer, but I started taking fire science classes at DMACC (Des Moines Area Community College) in Ankeny and was talking to Des Moines firefighters about their profession. They talked positively about it. I ultimately got on as a volunteer at the Ankeny Fire Department in 1992. The more I was around it, the more I wanted to do it as a career. I tested in Cedar Rapids and I was fortunate enough to get hired here in 1994.
Q: What made you apply for the fire chief position?
A: Part of it is a natural progression. Through the years at all levels, I wanted to challenge myself, and see what I could do at the next promotional rank. I decided in 1998 to get a public administration master’s degree (at ISU). There’s the challenge of promoting through the ranks, watching my officers, watching chief officers, and wanting to be more involved in a higher level of decision-making in the department. I felt I had a good background and education and experience. I felt I could build upon the foundation and help grow the fire department for the next couple decades.
Q: What does your first month on the job look like?
A: When I was a firefighter, you look at some decisions and think they are easy. You get promoted and all of a sudden, it’s real when you are making decisions. All the responsibility is on you, so you think about it differently. As far as the first month or so, it will be more information gathering and to start to communicate my vision and goals.
Q: What is your plan for filling your previous role as assistant fire chief?
A: It will be filled internally. We have 90 days to conduct an assessment center and create a list, per state code. I expect three to five people will be eligible to take the exam. I am working with HR, internal testing and command staff. Andy Oleson (who was one of four finalists for the chief position) is currently filling the role of interim assistant chief, which supervises operations, including training, battalion chiefs and shift personnel.
Q: Any changes anticipated?
A: Nothing glaring at this time. One thing we have to do as an organization is look at what are our response profiles now. Where is the city growing? Are there things we need to do to meet citizens’ needs? The opening of Highway 100 could drive growth west. We will see what options we have if we would have to relocate or build stations in the coming years. Certainly, not short term. This is long term. Is it three years down the road? Five years? Eight years down the road? I also will work to increase and maintain relationships with peer departments ... and businesses, industry and nonprofits within the city. I plan to work to increase diversity and inclusion within the department. It’s been a priority, but I want to work to double down. We’ve done well hiring female firefighters. Now we must work to branch out into racial and ethnic diversity.
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