Eric Lahey

The fire chief lights up

Eric Lahey, photography by Ryan Hodges

Eric Lahey, photography by Ryan Hodges

Fort Wayne has been through three fire chiefs in the past several years. We caught up with the newest one, Chief Eric Lahey, a military man who began his career with the Fort Wayne Fire Department in 1996 and took over the department in June. Find out what it takes to fight fire and protect lives – and what he served his fellow firefighters in Station 11 for dinner – as we play 20 Questions with Eric Lahey.

1. How has firefighting technology changed since you joined the department?
The most significant is the advent of thermal imaging cameras. It helps us see though the smoke to find potential victims. And the change in personal protective gear. It’s still bulky, but better. You’re basically wearing a big oven mitt trying to protect you from the heat.

2. What are three characteristics of a good firefighter?
Compassion. Technical proficiency. Accountability.

3. You and your wife Sarah have two daughters, Alena and Emily. Which is more frightening: Fighting fires or raising children?
Before I ever fought my first fire, I had countless hours of training. You don’t have that training before having kids. Raising daughters is more frightening. That whole aspect of teaching them to drive and then sending them off on their own! But it’s also exciting to see their growth.

4. What’s the most challenging part of fighting fires in a city the size of Fort Wayne?
It’s how the city has developed. You have to identify the different building construction types and try to develop training and policies to address them. You have to understand what that fire is going to do with (different) types of construction. We have 100-year-old buildings and brand-new buildings. Roof collapse is a huge deal since the 1990s because of lightweight (construction materials).

5. What can citizens do to prepare for emergencies?
The more you prepare, the better off you’ll be. If you know bad weather is coming, charge your cell phones and other devices, gas up your vehicles, store water and follow the advice of emergency officials.

6. What’s the most common cause of house fires here?
Electrical. We have so many electrical devices in our homes. But if we’re responsible, we can help prevent some of those fires.

7. What’s the biggest headache you’ve had since taking over as chief?
Personally, it’s been trying to find a balance between work and family. It requires a lot of time to get those pieces in place. I have to make sure the family’s needs are met emotionally and physically. It’s been the biggest challenge as opposed to a headache.

8. How do you feel about the Fort Wayne City Council’s actions ending unions for city workers?
I feel like you’re trying to get me in trouble! Look, I am a supporter of labor. My first job out of the Army I was in the union. And, of course, with the Fort Wayne Fire Department, I was in the union ever since. How I feel about the council’s decision is that I feel labor unions serve a purpose. To take away collective bargaining leaves the workers vulnerable to unfair treatment.

9. How is being a firefighter like being a soldier?
You have to know how to follow orders. You have to know what the job is and be able to execute it to the best of your ability. In the military, we train to respond to a situation, assess the situation and make decisions based on training. How we respond to a (fire) situation is very similar.

10. How important is training?
Training is the foundation for everything we do. It provides us that foundation and gives us a starting point. We turn to what we’ve been trained on to come to the best decision.

11. What does the phrase “servant leadership” mean to you?
On the fire department, we have a job because people are going to need us at the worst possible moment of their lives. It means taking that role in the community and also understanding this job requires a deep-rooted compassion for people. We deal with people who live in million-dollar homes and people who don’t have homes, and we treat them like any family member would want to be treated.

12. What drives that impulse to serve in you?
It’s my faith. The best example of servant leadership is Jesus Christ.

13. How do you bring that out in your firefighters?
It’s by setting an example. By connecting with the firefighters. Communication is key.

14. How have fire safety campaigns changed over the years?
We still teach the basic concepts, what to do and how best to prepare ourselves. With Safety Village, we teach 5,000 kids a year the Survive Alive program.

15. This year marks the Fort Wayne Fire Department’s 175th birthday. Where do you see the department going in the next 175 years?
I don’t know, spaceships? [Laughs.] Obviously technology is going to play a huge part in how we fight fires. I hope we can get to a point where we can completely eliminate the loss of life.

16. What are some of the changes we’ll see under your leadership?
We want to make sure our response is as efficient as possible. And we’ll be making sure our firefighters are as trained as possible. There’s always a way to find improvement.

17. What’s your hobby?
I do enjoy biking. I used to ride into work in the summertime.

18. Who are your heroes?
One is my junior ROTC teacher, Tibor Bierbaum at Concordia (Lutheran High School). Throughout high school, Major Bierbaum caught me in several moments when he showed me compassion. He inspired me to join the Army and then dedicate my life to others. I don’t even know if he realizes the impact he’s had on my life.

19. What’s your go-to firehouse recipe?
In the two years I was at Station 11, I only repeated two recipes: chicken enchiladas and beef fried rice, and those were at the request of the guys.

20. What’s your perfect day?
Any time I can spend with my wife and daughters is a perfect day. They make me laugh.

First appeared in the October 2014 Fort Wayne Monthly.

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