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The influence of the longest-serving fire chief in the State of Alabama extends far beyond the Enterprise Fire Department and the City Limits.
Fellow firefighters, City of Enterprise co-workers, family and friends gathered from near and far Wednesday afternoon to let retiring Fire Chief Byron Herring know that.
“There are people who touch you and mold you in this business, and Chief Herring is one of those people,” said Chief Michael Stephens, City of Troy fire chief and second vice president of the Alabama Fire Chiefs Association.
Stephens was among a number of fire service officers from the EFD and surrounding areas who attended Herring’s retirement ceremony at the Enterprise Civic Center.
Stephens confirmed that Herring is the longest-serving fire chief in the State of Alabama, with 26 years and 7 months as fire chief, and 47 years and 7 months in the fire service. Herring has served that entire stint with the EFD, starting in 1973 at age 20.
“Chiefs usually serve 10 or 15 years, at most, and to have someone serve for almost 27 years – that’s remarkable,” Stephens said. “He is highly regarded in the fire service around the state. Everyone either knows him or they want to meet him.”
Stephens said he and his Deputy Chief Curtis Shaver are among the many who consider Herring a mentor.
“He’s my go-to person because he’s done it. That man has seen and done a lot,” Stephens said.
Both Stephens and Shaver describe Herring as a man of integrity.
“One of the first things that comes to mind about Chief Herring is character,” Shaver said. “We can talk about his professionalism, his dedication and other things, but the bottom line is he’s someone with the utmost character. He’s just a good, honest man.”
News of Herring’s retirement a few weeks ago made Shaver happy about the start of a new adventure in Herring’s life but he said firefighters all over the state lament that the wisdom gained from almost a half-century in the fire service will not be readily accessible.
“It was emotional to hear he is retiring; it’s bittersweet,” Stephens said. “But of course, we congratulate him and wish him the best.”
Enterprise leaders and EFD personnel also have mixed emotions.
“Byron has been an exemplary employee for the City of Enterprise, as well as a longtime personal friend,” said Mayor William E. Cooper in announcing Herring’s retirement Friday morning. “His wisdom and leadership has served Enterprise extremely well through all of these years.
After 47 years and 7 months of service, he will be sorely missed. Having an employee with that much experience and professional expertise is rare and we hate to lose that.
Under Herring’s leadership, city officials said the people of Enterprise have enjoyed the benefits of having one of the best fire departments in the state and nation. In fact, it’s one of less than 1,600 from among about 50,000 across the nation who have achieved a Class 2 Fire Insurance Rating.
Many fire service officers, firefighters and community leaders believe that’s no accident. They say a great fire department has to have a great chief, and they believe they’ve had the best in Chief Byron Herring.
“He has been a great chief, leader and mentor to me, his peers and our department,” said Capt. Chris Davis, who has worked with Herring for 28 years.
“I am truly honored to have been able to work with him. He is dedicated to community service and has made many personal sacrifices in order to make our community safer,” Davis said. “The citizens of Enterprise have little to no idea how much effort he has made in their safety and protection.”
Capt. Joey Stephenson started working at the Enterprise Fire Department in 2001.
“I’ve seen this department come a long way from what it was when I started, and it was under the leadership of Chief Herring,” Stephenson said.
Retired Capt. Ricky James agreed, saying Herring has helped the department grow “by leaps and bounds.” When James started work in 1982, the EFD only had two stations, four fire engines and 15 men. Today, the department has seven fire engines, four stations and 51 men.
“He has always tried to move the fire department forward with new equipment and education, and he always looked after his men from the day he hired them until they retired.” James said. “I can honestly say I am very proud to have worked under his leadership and guidance. The fire department is like a family and Chief Herring is the father figure everyone looks up to.”
Stephenson concurs with James, Stephens and Shaver that character is a big factor in the respect that Herring commands both locally and across the state.
“He’s always been there for all of his men, whether it be work-related or personal life issues, to offer any advice or support he could, even if it was just to give them someone to talk to,” Stephenson said.
“I don’t think I have ever met a more honest or hard-working man that shows the dedication that he has to this department,” he added. “One of the things I have always looked up to Chief Herring for is that he is the same man outside the EFD that he is at the EFD. I know I have become a better firefighter and officer because of his leadership and support, and a better man outside the department as well.”
His co-workers and friends both within the fire service and without say Herring would not easily accept praise for the positive influence he’s had on others. They understand his concept of teamwork and unity.
In fact, Herring said this week that no one person deserves all the credit for the growth of the EFD and its value to the community.
“We are a team, and it takes all of us,” he said. “I am extremely proud of all of our personnel and all the people I’ve worked with through the years. I’ve been very fortunate to have great captains and other firefighters as well that want to step up and take on leadership responsibilities.”
Herring believes the mark of a good leaders is to lead by example, and he has tried to do that. “I’ve had good mentors and I hope I could pass along the same kind of philosophies and knowledge that my mentors taught me.”
Herring said he is grateful to city leaders for giving him the opportunity to be chief in 1994. He worked under six different mayors during his career. He was hired in 1973 by Fire Chief Billy Joe Watson.
In 2018, Herring was honored as Alabama’s Career Fire Chief of the Year. The award, the most prestigious honor the Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs can bestow, recognizes truly outstanding fire chiefs whose actions and leadership in their profession, home, community and country, serve as an example and challenge for all other chief fire executives throughout the Southeast.
He admits that the decision to retire was not an easy one. “We say when you join the fire service, it gets in your blood, and you become part of a brotherhood, a family,” he said. “When you go into a burning building, you want to know going with you has your back.”
Herring said he’s only had to leave a fire scene and go to the hospital one time in his long career and he feels blessed about that, but he admits that he’s been in a few situations with fellow firefighters when “we’ve wondered whether we were going to make it out.”
Thankfully, he said, safety for firefighters as well as efficiency of firefighting capabilities have improved drastically over the past 47 years. For the first few years of his career, the fire department had only a few air packs, and those weren’t used much. Firefighter protective gear consisted of a helmet and a coat. Firefighters also still rode standing up on the back of the truck as well.
“You knew where every railroad track was and every bump in the street was because you had to brace yourself so you wouldn’t get bumped off the truck,” he said with a chuckle, noting that as the years went by, some of the most dangerous practices that had been acceptable in the past fell by the wayside.
Today, firefighters have extensive protective gear, each one has a designated breathing apparatus and they have a variety of mechanical and technical equipment that help them save lives and preserve property.
One of the biggest changes that Herring helped to usher in was the addition of emergency medical services to the fire department’s responsibility. “I saw it coming,” Herring said. “Our first goal is to protect life, and this was another way to help our community. “
The transition wasn’t easy or quick, but Herring said firefighters were willing and eager to learn the skills that would enable them to help people who were sick or injured. The EFD now answers 10 to 15 medical calls per day. “It has certainly been a life-saving program, Herring said.
As “my last day at the fire department” approaches May 28, he’s looking forward to spending time with his family, especially his wife, Martha, who has sacrificed so much in order for him to be with the citizens of Enterprise in their times of emergency or disaster.
“My family has been supportive and tolerant,” he said, explaining that throughout his career family dinners, trips and other plans have been interrupted to canceled because an emergency call would come in and he would have to report to work.
“When I had to go to work on my off days, she had to look after the kids and the farm,” he said. “One thing I look forward to is being able to stay at home with her during inclement weather. She always had to face that alone.”
With wishes and prayers for great years of retirement ahead from the crowd at the retirement announcement Friday, Herring told them he was blessed to be able to do a job that he loved for so many years.
“It’s hard. I’m gonna miss it. I’m gonna miss this family here at the City and the Fire Department, but it’s time,” he said.