Lead, Educate, Serve, Include: Interview with IAFC President Chief John S. Butler

February 20, 2024

International Association of Fire Chiefs President Chief John S. Butler shares his journey in the fire service and hopes for the future

In the dynamic landscape of fire and emergency services, Chief John S. Butler is a name synonymous with dedication, innovation, and an unwavering commitment to community safety.

As the serving President of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) for the 2023-24 term, Chief Butler brings to the table a wealth of experience and a visionary approach to fire and emergency services.

The IAFC, representing the leadership of firefighters and emergency responders worldwide, has been a prominent figure in shaping the future of fire and emergency services.

With a history dating back to 1873, the IAFC last year celebrated its 150th anniversary, marked by continual advancements in firefighting, emergency medical services, and public safety legislation.

Chief Butler’s ascension to the presidency of the IAFC is a testament to his extraordinary leadership qualities and his profound understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the fire service sector.

In this exclusive interview, FSJA Editor Iain Hoey delves into the remarkable journey of Chief Butler in the fire service, who shares insights, experiences, and aspirations for the future, offering a unique perspective on the evolving landscape of fire and emergency services under exemplary leadership.

Can you please introduce yourself and share what inspired you to pursue a career in fire and rescue services?

I am John S. Butler, Fire Chief of Fairfax County (Virginia) Fire and Rescue Department and currently serving as the President and Board Chair of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC).

My journey in the fire and emergency services industry began with a profound desire to serve my community and make a positive impact on people’s lives, inspired by the first responders who influenced my own life.

As an immigrant born in Liberia, Africa, my family and I arrived in the US when I was 12 years old.

Shortly thereafter, while in Maryland, we stopped at a fire station for directions.

Fate would have it that years later, that very fire station became the place where I would serve as a recruit firefighter, paramedic, fire officer, and conclude my field assignments as a fire battalion chief/paramedic.

Whether as a teen, during my Marine Corps service, or throughout my tenure in the fire service, my path to this moment has been shaped by countless people who inspired me through mentoring and coaching.

My former fire chiefs/mentors in Howard County, Maryland provided opportunities, challenged me, encouraged me, and corrected me.

The power of these interactions has propelled me to where I am today.

The commitment to public safety, the opportunity to be at the forefront of community service, and the chance to mentor others in this path continue to fuel my passion.

Looking back at your journey in the fire service, what are some pivotal moments that shaped your career?

Reflecting on my career, several pivotal moments stand out.

One key turning point was the transition from a firefighter to a leadership role.

Embracing responsibilities that extended beyond firefighting allowed me to contribute strategically to the development of our department and the broader fire service community.

Leading the highly dedicated and talented staff at Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department has been an immensely rewarding experience.

Most recently, I am proud to serve as IAFC’s President and Board Chair at a time when we celebrate the organization’s 150th Anniversary.

I look forward to continuing the fine work that has been initiated by past presidents, staff, and boards.

Could you describe a particularly memorable incident or challenge you faced in your career?

During my early days as a recruit, I encountered a particularly memorable incident that left a lasting impact on my perspective as a firefighter.

On the night of August 8, 1993, we received multiple 911 calls reporting a fire in an apartment.

As we arrived at the scene, my colleague and I were met with a potentially life-threatening situation.

The source of the fire was traced to three burners left on the stove, and a partially burned pizza carton on the counter.

What made this incident particularly challenging was the discovery of the occupant, who was found in bed.

Our training kicked in, and we knew immediate action was required.

Recognizing the urgency of the matter, we proceeded to carry the victim to safety.

The sprinkler system, fortunately, played a crucial role in containing the fire and undoubtedly contributed to saving the occupant’s life.

The collaborative effort of firefighting units from numerous area fire stations showcased the importance of teamwork in managing such incidents.

There was fire, smoke, and water damage to the home, but what mattered most was that we successfully rescued the individual in distress, illustrating the profound impact our actions can have in ensuring the safety and well-being of our community members.

This experience underscored the significance of training, quick thinking, and effective coordination in the face of unexpected challenges in the line of duty.

What’s been the most fulfilling aspect of your career in fire and rescue services?

The most rewarding aspect of my career has been witnessing the positive impact our efforts have on the communities we serve.

Whether it’s saving lives, protecting property, or fostering community resilience, knowing that our work makes a tangible difference is incredibly fulfilling.

The camaraderie among colleagues and the shared commitment to a noble cause also contribute to the immense satisfaction derived from a career in fire and emergency services.

As the President and Board Chair of the IAFC, what have been your primary objectives and plans? What are some key policy areas you are advocating for at the moment?

I look forward to strengthening the relationship between all fire service organizations.

Leveraging our common interests is vital to recruiting and sustaining an exceptional workforce to serve the public.

One of my priorities is wellness and resiliency.

Early detection of cancer and other conditions, sleep hygiene, work/life management, physical and mental health are priorities for enhancing career and volunteer firefighters and EMS providers.

We must not lose sight of the need to be vigilant about building and sustaining healthy organizational cultures, strengthened by behavioural best practices, in which everyone can thrive.

Lastly, we must be an active partner in the campaign on environmental impact for addressing the horrific wildfire threat across North America and other world regions.

In our strategic initiative plan, the Association frames its relationship with the membership and related organizations based on four goals: – Lead, Educate, Serve, and Include.

I would like to personalize them to our local experience.

In your view, what are the most pressing challenges currently facing the fire sector?

The fire sector is currently grappling with numerous challenges.

These include resource constraints, evolving risks due to climate change, and the need for advanced technologies to enhance response capabilities.

Additionally, issues such as mental health support for firefighters and recruitment and retention of qualified personnel are becoming increasingly critical.

What advice would you give to someone aspiring to a leadership position in the fire and rescue services?

For those aspiring to leadership positions in the fire and rescue services, my advice is to remain committed to continuous learning.

Embrace opportunities for professional development, seek diverse experiences within the field, and cultivate strong communication and interpersonal skills.

Leadership in this field requires adaptability, resilience, and a steadfast commitment to the well-being of both your team and the community you serve.

Finally, what are your visions or hopes for the future of the fire and safety industry?

Looking ahead, my vision for the future of the fire and safety industry involves leveraging cutting-edge technologies, fostering increased collaboration among agencies, and prioritizing the mental health and well-being of our personnel.

I envision a future where fire departments are well-equipped, resilient, and adaptable to emerging challenges, ensuring the highest level of service and protection for our communities.

This article was originally published in the February 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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