'Life Times Two' Part 2
By Brad McEwen
Note: This is the second part of an in depth sit-down with former Albany Fire Chief Ron Rowe
While listening to former Albany Fire Chief Ron Rowe fondly reflect on his 30-plus years as a firefighter, it was obvious to me that those years of service had a profound effect on him.
It was also apparent that his decision to move on from that life was not something he did lightly.
Having never lived the life of a first-responder, what Ron eloquently calls “Life Times Two,” I can’t really image how difficult it was for him to transition into what one would call a “normal life.”
Hearing him talk about his firefighting “family” and some of the harrowing experiences they shared during those three decades protecting this community, I found myself thinking it must have been an incredibly hard decision.
But, as it turns out, after learning some of Ron’s history and hearing him speak passionately about his current career, it made more sense. Then when I looked at that decision through the lens of my own experiences, and the times in my life when I felt there was more I could be doing, I understood.
In the second part of our lengthy Beyond the Bank interview, Ron discusses his decision to leave the fire department, his feelings about leadership and community and his earnest desire to see the men and women he counsels in his role with ACCG (Association of County Commissioners of Georgia) “retire with dignity.”
A long history in the fire service family
I’ll give you a history. It’s a story I’ve told before, but it’s kind of weird how small the world is. My wife and I (Debra) met some time in the late 80’s I guess. I won’t give a date cause then she’ll crucify me for not getting it right.
We met and were dating, all this kind of stuff—and dating a LONG time. I’m just one these guys, I didn’t want to just commit quickly. So I met her dad and I knew the whole family over time cause that’s how long we dated—I knew everybody.
So the story comes up that her grandfather was fire chief for the fire department here. He’s the last fireman in the city of Albany to die on duty. He was the fire chief and died in 1971 at a monthly meeting at a fire station.
My dad retired from there 30 years as a captain—not the whole 30 years as a captain, he retired as a captain after 30 years. Well, Debra, my wife, her grandfather hired my dad. September 16, 1969 was when he was hired.
Well I played ball when I was growing up, like 13 months out of the year I was just playing ball. I didn’t care you know, any kind of ball. I was like, ‘Okay, we’ll play.’ So after I graduated it was like, ‘What are you gonna do?’ I had an opportunity to go to school. I didn’t. I was too young and stupid and doing stupid stuff.
So anyway I was working for Kroger. It was unionized. I was young. I didn’t care. Well they had some kind of pay thing and anyway, they closed the store. So I had to find something. And so my dad, of course, he said, ‘Have you ever thought about this?’
‘I don’t know, what the heck, I’ll give it a shot.’
Well, I was hired September 16, 1985. So 16 years apart we were hired. So Debra’s grandfather was hired I believe in 1941, yep 1941, and stayed there until 1971, basically 30 years. My dad, 69 to 99, 30 years. Now I did a little longer, but since 1941 we’ve had a direct line in the fire department here.
And I literally grew up in the fire service and seeing my dad and knowing he worked two jobs all the time. I remember picking him up from the fire station when he was getting off and taking him to work.
He’s done several things, but he drove a truck when I was real young. He drove 18-wheelers for 16 years. I would take him to the truck yard when he got off and I remember going back and picking him up and taking him back to the fire station so he could go back to work.
And they worked one day on, two days off, so he’d be gone for two days, but he worked all the time.
So growing up in that, the part about the close-knit, family atmosphere, the traditional stuff, was all good. It was a blessing to me because I grew up in that and when I came into the fire station—I was the youngest guy in the station—I had a bunch of these old guys, as I would call them, they’ll all younger than I am now, kinda raise me.
And you learned good traits and you learned bad traits, you know. Whatever, I stayed.
I left the fire department once before in, I think it was October of 2000, and came back in July of 2001. It wasn’t that long. It was a frustrating time in the fire service in Albany—just the culture of it.
People don’t leave work because of the work they’re doing. They leave because of the environment. If it was the work—I was a captain, I was moving up—I never would have come back. It wasn’t the work, it was the environment.
But I was blessed enough that they let me come back. They could have said no. But they let me come back and I stayed until January 1 (2018).
Becoming chief was never the goal
I think the first meeting I had with the city manager, the current city manager (Sharon Subadan)—I don’t want to say this is a quote, but it probably is—she said, ‘Well I guess you can check this off your bucket list.’
I said, ‘This was never on my bucket list.’
And there’s a reason.
I read John Maxwell and there’s a reason that his ‘Five Levels of Leadership’ is very popular.
His first level is titles don’t mean anything, you know. Everyone has a title, even at the bottom—the elementary, novice, bottom, whatever word you can put to it, entry level. Everybody has a title. It means nothing.
I wasn’t the first fire chief. I’m not the only fire chief in the world. So obviously, it’s not the title. You see what I’m saying?
I really enjoy and I buy into what he says. It’s more about relationships and building those relationships to the point that you have influence—being able to build those relationships to the point that you value other people’s opinions and thoughts, etc. You may not use them all the time, but you should value what they are.
You’re not the smartest guy because you’ve got a title.
So to that, it was never on my bucket list.
When I was born, my title, they gave me a name—it’s on my birth certificate. I was called son; there’s a title. I had a sister, so I became a brother—I got another title. There’s so many.
One of the things that frustrates me so much is—and there may have been a couple of exceptions based on where I was and the reason I was there—but almost exclusively though, I always introduce myself by my name, not by my title.
I just didn’t believe in it.
If I was in a formal situation where we had an investigation going on, you know there’s a difference. You know they gotta know who you are and all that kinda stuff.
But it matters to too many people.
When I hear people in a casual environment introduce themselves as a title, I so badly wanna go buy the book ‘Five Levels of Leadership’ and just slide it in their bag or something. I’m not saying that’s a catch all solution, I’m just saying it’s so aggravating.
I was in a chief’s conference once. What kind of conference? A CHIEF’S conference. You would think that’s a qualification to get in it, if they call it that. You may have to be a chief.
And to hear a lot of people in the crowd, they’re, ‘I’m chief so and so.’ Almost everybody in the room’s a chief. You ain’t gotta tell me that. And I don’t care.
‘Hey I’m from Albany, I’m Ronald,’ you know.
To be on the bucket list? Nah.
It’s not the title that matters
While I was in the position briefly—it might have been the most brief in history, I think there’s one other that did less than me—I tried, I believe, with the exception of maybe the last part-time group we hired, to know everybody’s name that worked in the fire department.
The reason for that goes all the way back to when we were talking about family.
A fire department is a family.
My father-in-law, a long time ago, I heard him say—and I don’t think he said it to me, I think I just heard him say it, and I’ve heard other people since, so I don’t know if it’s originally from him or not, but it doesn’t matter, he worked at the Pentagon—he said that from the janitor all the way to the top you called people by their name.
You know who they are. It makes a difference.
He’s in a rehab facility now, trying to rehabilitate from a bad physical condition, but every person that works there, that walks in his room, he calls them by their first name.
It makes a difference.
You’re going to have a baby.
When you get to the hospital, you’re gonna have a name for the baby. You may not share it til it comes, but when it comes you’re gonna come out and say, ‘This is so and so, the new member of our family.’
I wanna know everybody’s name. When I went to the recruit school, I could call them by their name.
We’re gonna have a new member of our family. Why wouldn’t you call them by their name? That’s what you do when you have a baby. I mean I’m not saying they’re babies, but they’re entry level to our business. To me it’s the same thing.
Call people by their name.
They’re not a number. They’re not a title, not a position.
I get frustrated by that stuff. It’s really frustrating and people don’t believe it. When you know somebody by their name, you build some sort of relationship.
Despite strong relationships, the time came to leave the fire service
I was ready.
Could I have worked longer with the city? I think I could have worked there 10 more years. It’s just not what I wanted to do anymore. There’s a lot of reasons in that statement, but it just wasn’t want I wanted to do anymore.
You asked me, did I miss the fire department? I literally don’t think about it because what I’m doing is what I want, what really brings me alive.
I hate to sound cheesy, but it brings a lot of joy.
Here’s the difference—I don’t wanna mislead my son that’s in the fire service, but I told him the suppression—that’s the operation shift people, the operations of the fire department—the top level there is battalion chief. I said, ‘shoot for that.’
It’s a different world in administration, totally different.
When I was still in the position one of the firemen asked, ‘We heard you were leaving?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘I don’t know that I still work with the fire service. I work in the fire department, but I’m not sure I still work with the fire service.’
When I realized that—it could be my weird way of thinking—I realized that I wanted to work for the fire service. I was still a fireman, so to say; I worked in the fire department, but somewhere something happened that I no longer—and don’t get me wrong, I think I had some influence and impact on the fire service part—but my job was not in the fire service.
I learned a lot. And overwhelmingly I’m where I am today because of the opportunities I chose to take. I could’ve said, ‘I’m not putting in for the chief’s job.’
And truthfully I’d probably still be working at the fire department if I hadn’t. Because as a deputy, you were still in the fire service. You stayed in the fire service.
Some people like doing the fire chief stuff. I enjoyed the fire department. I enjoyed being a part of the city of Albany.
And you can’t go backwards
Well I could.
I think it’d be heartburn for other people, you know. Once you make it up there you can’t back. That’s an old saying. Well, I don’t have an issue with that. I’ll ride in the back of the truck. I don’t care. I’m not tied to that.
Once of the things with organizational charts real quick. You know how they put the department head at the top and you run them down? I used to always turn mine upside down and say, ‘That’s the way we work.’
Our job is support everybody else. If you can’t give them what they need, they can’t do their job. So don’t forget where we are. The higher you get, the lower you get on this chart. You gotta hold up more. You gotta be stronger, you gotta do more work. You gotta do all this.
Any organizational chart I’ve ever seen, it had the title in it, didn’t have any names in it. So anybody can be in it. You choose to stay or you can choose to go.
In my case, I chose to go.
It was time.
I want the best for the department. I really do, because the overwhelming majority, and maybe all, are really good humans. They really are.
That sounds bad when I say, ‘Maybe all,’ but I don’t know everyone personally on that level to say, ‘You are a really good human.’ I don’t know.
But they may be really good at work and be scum somewhere else. I don’t know. I hope not. They don’t give that indication. But I couldn’t swear on the Bible that every one of them are good people. That’s what I mean.
But I hope the best for them.
An opportunity to continue helping folks
I was given an opportunity early on, I think it was ’97, to go to work as like an associate agent—I think it’s what they call them, you know like part-time stuff. I went and got my license to do securities and all that and worked on my days off from shift work—’97 to 2000.
In 2001 I think that’s when my license went out and I went back into administrative work.
But I always knew I wanted to go back to that. And I got to a point where I said, ‘You know, a lot of people believe opportunity will knock for you.’
I guess if you wait around long enough it might, but sometimes you have to go looking for it. I got to the point where I said, ‘You know, this isn’t all I can do.’ I actually do have more skills sets than just working for government.
So I started looking for opportunities.
I always wanted to do what I’m doing now and there were some things lining up and I said, ‘Hey, maybe that’ll work.’
Well sometimes you tell people, ‘If there’s ever an opening in your business, anywhere, I’d be interest in looking if you’d be interested in letting me look.’
And what do you know, I was blessed that an opportunity came about and it was good because of everything that I had done in government work. And this job allows me to work with government employees.
So when I say I’ve been there and done that, I’ve been at the lowest level in the fire department all the way up to the executive team—and anything in between. I worked from the so-called new recruit on up.
So I’ve got some experience.
I was on benefit committees. I was vice chair of the pension board for over 11 years; when I left I was vice chair. So I’ve had some experience, got some background.
Now I sit down with people every day, or I’m standing in front of a group of government employees every day, helping them get to a point that they can take advantage of the benefits they have offered to them, the plan they have, and do the steps and retire with dignity.
Now I get to try and help every day.
I think that’s a bleed over from the fire service, because, like I said, we used to look back, you know, reflect back and say, ‘Why do I do this?’
Well you feel like you’re helping somebody and you’re make a difference.
I still feel that way every day.
Last Thursday I did a little retirement seminar in the city of Albany—had 108 people in the seminar. One hundred and eight people were exposed to some education. If they take advantage of it, that’s great. But it’s their choice. At least we’re getting the information out.
Important information for hard working folks
I worked almost 32 years with the city and numerous times people came by and asked me—people with 27, 28 years—‘Hey man, how does our retirement work?’
That’s not a kick against Albany because there have been opportunities. If you wanna know, you can find out.
And that’s in every community. But here’s the thing, you have to make that effort.
It all goes back to we’re creatures of habit; ‘That ain’t what I do every day. You know when I think about retirement? When it gets close.’
Well, that’s so backwards. You should think about it the first day so you don’t have to think about it when you get close.
The Association of County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG), they allow me to go into these counties and some cities and I am allowed to education these employees on their county’s benefits. I ain’t talking about all them, I’m talking about the retirement side of it—their defined benefit.
We talk about that and how it all works together to be able to give you some dignity in the end.
I’m a numbers guy. I really enjoy the financial side of things—the numbers, putting that stuff together. By no means am I some kind of super-duper financial planner. No, it’s a different level of stuff.
But I grew up working in government municipalities—grew up in that world.
Well those people traditionally have made lower incomes in the community, and traditionally have really good benefits. Well, as time has moved on that’s not so much the case now—there’s some really good salaries in government, some a lot better than others.
But the benefits aren’t bad.
Early on I knew I wanted to help people on the financial side. I could tell that with our retirement plan, I could not retire from the city of Albany and say, ‘I never have to go back to work.’ That ain’t gonna happen—not with the retirement plan that’s in the city of Albany. And I think it’s a good one—modest but good.
What I do is talk about 100 percent income replacement for retirement. There’s still people out there saying, 70, 80 percent to be able to sustain your cost of living.
You can’t take a 20 to 30 percent pay cut today and feel good about it. We’re creatures of habit.
People say, ‘Well you should be able to pay off your house.’ Sure, but do that anyway. What’s that got to do with it? Why have I got to take a pay cut to do it? No. We’re talking about 100 percent income replacement.
Well in the fire world, and I can talk about that, we do fire stuff. HR people tell us about benefits.
Not talking about the city of Albany, I’m talking across the board, the overwhelming majority of people get benefit information at new employee orientation. Well that’s one day or your career. Maybe you get a couple more, scattered out throughout your career—they’ll do these benefit things that explain them, you may or may not do them, but scattered throughout your career you get some.
And open enrollment every year, you got like 20 minutes. And now it’s online, so who are you taking to? No one. But used to you could sit down with a guy for 10, 15 minutes and go through everything that you’re gonna be paying for out of your paycheck.
That’s probably not the best way, but that’s the way we do it.
Well defined benefit plans are pretty scarce in the United States now. And then in the government it’s called 457 (b)—it’s their savings.
So we talk about how they work together to be able to give you some dignity, hopefully, in the end.
Hopefully Social Security will be there.
And then when I talk to police and firemen, they have a separate pension available in addition to the defined benefit plan. Well, you’d be surprised how many firefighters and police officers don’t join their state pension.
You know how much it costs a firefighter? Twenty-five dollars a month.
You know what they get out of it? You work 25 years and you’re 55, you get around $840 a month the rest of your life. If you die, whoever you select as your survivor gets the same check the rest of their life.
You can’t invest money anywhere and get that kind of return—$25 a month for 25 years and it’s worth about $260,000. You can’t do that.
And they’re like, ‘I don’t know how long I’m gonna be here.’
Well, they’ll give you your money back if you leave. So just do it.
It’s amazing. It is.
So every time I talk, I give a different spiel—‘This is your defined benefit plan, this is how it works, all you have to do is this.’
‘This is your 457 plan, this is how it works, here’s your funds available to you, this is how they work, etc.’
So I do that everywhere I go.
I get to try to educate people and hopefully help them; I can’t tell them what to do, that’s not my job. I educate them and then I service the account, like when they need withdrawal forms or they need to increase their contribution amount, or if they forgot their password. I don’t transact investments for them, or anything like that.
I educate and service.
And I love it.
Great place to work
Where I work today, I’ve yet to hear, ‘me, mine, I’ in conversations, you know. We do a lot of stuff and I don’t hear anybody saying, ‘Well let me tell you what I did.’
No, it’s always, ‘Well my team,’ etc., or it’s, ‘How can WE help you get this accomplished? What do you need from US?’
It’s all that—it’s true support from leadership. And again, I’m not slamming the city by any means. I’m just telling you how good it is where I am.
I really would find it hard to imagine that I could be working at a better place. And that’s as honest as I can be about it.
The guy that’s my boss, my supervisor, whatever you want to call him, is a good human being.
I used to tell people at work, ‘On the very best day, my job is number three.’ That’s the priority list. That’s the very best day and it was number three. That’s the highest it’s ever been. That’s where I work.
The whole group’s that way here. It’s just like, wow.
My mom has some issues. So they said, ‘Look, go take care of your mom.’ I’m not saying I couldn’t get that somewhere else. I’m just telling you the environment is just crazy. I’ve worked places and sometimes it’s not always that way.
Things usually work out
Until I left the fire department, I didn’t realize I could’ve left 20 years ago if I wanted to. It would have been okay. Things do happen, but things work out. I just wasn’t willing to take the step.
But sometimes you gotta jump, you know. You’re gonna get bruises. You’re gonna get cuts and scrapes. But if you don’t jump, you don’t ever get where you need to be.
I got to thinking about all those things that happen and things work out.
You know we had the tornadoes and this is what people forget—January 16 we had a 32 foot river. Phil Roberson and I, in the nighttime, were walking through neighborhoods checking the water levels, making sure everybody’s okay.
Now we’re not looking for credit by any means, I’m just telling you, January 16 we had the proof that what the city had done after we had the floods in ’94 and ’98, they had put in a lot of good things to control that.
We had a 32 foot river and nothing flooded. Not one finished floor got water. Now there were some houses in Radium Springs where the basements got water, but I’m talking about finished floor. We had zero reports of finished floors in a structure being flooded.
So a lot of the things from the ’94 and ’98 floods that we said had to be done were done and they worked.
There are things that happened, like the tornadoes in ’17, a lot of damage. You’re talking about widespread damage with the flood and widespread damage in January and we’ll have remnants of that forever.
When you ride down 3rd Avenue you see it. When you look at the tree line, you see it.
The good thing is, when you ride down there today you see new growth on the trees.
It’s gonna come back.
We came back from the flood. We’ll come back from this.
And it goes back to what I said earlier—we’re more alike than different.
If you look at the January tornadoes it was the community helping each other. They didn’t ask any questions. And it was unconditional.
It wasn’t, ‘Excuse me sir, what is your belief system?’ ‘Okay I’m not gonna cut your trees up.’
They didn’t ask any of that. The community came together.
Get over petty crap and realize we are more alike than we’re different.
So we had all these things happen and Albany’s still standing.
And it will stand.
If we’re all part of the solution
If you’re gonna come to me with a problem, give me a solution. Otherwise we call you a complainer.
Not everything and not everybody on Facebook is a complainer, but there are more complainers than there are people with solutions.
Now I know what they say, ‘Well, we hired you to solve this.’ By all means, but sometimes you need help. I’ve never met anyone that said, ‘Oh, I don’t need any help; I got it.’
When you get arrogant enough to think that you don’t need any help, you’re going to hurt somebody.
But instead of complaining, bring a solution.
I read so much negative stuff in the paper and hear it on TV and that’s all you hear. And that’s in every community. I don’t want to target Albany by any means, but that’s the story that gets told.
Well every community would be better off telling their story first instead of letting somebody make one up. Because the neighborhood story becomes the truth whether it is or not.
It may be true, but it’s gonna be true regardless.
Tell your story. Every day.
In my career, I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had an opportunity to tell quite a few stories and I have to say that getting a chance to share part of Ron’s story is near the top of my list.
That his story would include his plea for this community to embrace its own narrative and spread the word about all the wonderful things we all have in common—the things that make the Albany area such an awesome place—is just gravy.
The more time I spent chatting with him for this two part Beyond the Bank, the more I realized just how fortunate this community has been to have the support of involved and positive citizens like Ron Rowe.
Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - firstname.lastname@example.org - @BradGMcEwen