When Battalion Chief Jeff Alexander joined the Waxahachie Fire Department in 1984 Members Only jackets were in fashion and “the Cosby Show” was starting its run on television. After 30 years of service to the city Alexander finished his last day on the job Wednesday.
“When I started out we had all open top cab trucks except for one and for my first several years I road tailboard on the fire truck,” Alexander said. “We had no equipment. I think that on my first day the chief sent me to Sears and Roebuck to get a pair of mud boots for my firefighting boots.”
Alexander said the department had only one air pack and nobody would use it. If a firefighter did they were called a “sissy” and had to travel to the Dallas Fire Department to refill the bottle, because the department had no way to refill the bottle. Over the course of his career, he has seen a lot of changes in the quality of equipment and the level of training, he said.
When Alexander was growing up, he never intended on being a firefighter but had dreamed of being a champion rodeo rider and even attend college on a rodeo scholarship. It was Alexander’s grandfather Johnny Hilton, who worked as a Dallas firefighter, who influenced him to make the career move. A few weeks after turning 21, Alexander joined the department. He continued rodeoing professionally for 13 years while working at the station.
“My grandfather he was a retired Dallas fireman and was the one that lured me into this direction. First thing I noticed was how he was home a lot of the time. He was gone at times, but when he was home — he was home,” Alexander said. “At the time I was young. Being a firefighter came with a rush of adrenalin, which was part of it. Also I guess having the two and three days off. But that comes with a lot of sacrifice too.”
Alexander said the schedule could be demanding at times, because on his third day at the station on a three days on, three day offs, rotation he missed his family and friends and would miss out on family time.
“One of the things I have enjoyed the most about this job is fighting fires because of the challenge it presents,” Alexander said. Apart from fighting fires he enjoyed being part of the team and the camaraderie between fellow firefighters while on shift.
Alexander recalled one special memory of himself and now Waxahachie Mayor Kevin Strength, who was a firefighter at the time.
“We were traveling en route to a fire on a rainy day,” he said. “The truck was a single cab and we had three of us stuffed inside.”
A report of smoke showing from the outside of a structure came over the radio, so the three took off toward the fire. Alexander recalled just as the truck reached the 600 block of U.S. Highway 77, a vehicle pulled out in front of the fire truck.
Strength was driving and swerved, but struck a telephone pole. The impact caused to doors on that side of the truck become jammed and they would not open.
After the wreck he remarked, “it looks like the truck is on fire” because he saw smoke coming out of the dash, Strength recalled, adding that the firefighter sitting in the middle seat, Sam Lewis, heard his remark and without thinking of his injured leg, climbed over Alexander to get himself out. Strength said after getting out, Lewis continued to run away from the truck and across a parking lot yelling with each stride, “My leg! My leg!” It turned out the truck was not on fire, Alexander said. He and Strength would tease Lewis about it for many days after.
During his time at the department, Alexander moved up the ranks from firefighter and just a few years ago, took on the position of battalion chief.
“When I made battalion chief it kind of separates you. You are kind of in a league of your own. You are not the big chief, and you're not one of 'the guys' anymore. You are kind of stuck in the middle,” Alexander said. “ I am glad I did it though. I love commanding, setting up command posts and coming up with a plan and operating that aspect of it.”
Alexander has been on many calls he remembers as humorous, such as responding to a vehicle unlock for one of his daughters. But there also have been calls that have tested his skill and emotions. One of the worst calls for him was the death of a brother.
“The worst call (was for) my middle brother. He died in a car accident. I was the first one on the scene in a fire truck and had no idea that it was him,” Alexander said. “I nearly ended my career right there.”
Alexander said the decision to retire came to him a few months and though that now would be the right time.
“About three and half years ago me and the girls' mom got divorced and I got custody of both my daughters. My mom was living close, so she took care of my kids when I was up (at the station). That has been tough with every third day being here and the girls not having a parent at home. I think that started it,” Alexander said. “I am tired of telling them every third night that I love them by text. I am ready to be home every day with my family and sleep in my own bed every night.”
Alexander said he does not plan to retire and sit at home, instead he is going to pursue another opportunity in the field of real estate appraisal. He added that being a firefighter has been a great career and that he would not change anything for it.
Family, friends and fellow firefighters gathered at the Waxahachie Fire Department's Station Two on Wednesday to honor Alexander’s service to the department and to the city. Fire Chief Ricky Boyd presented Alexander with a ceremonial fire axe.
“A pick head axe is the most common tool used in the fire service. It is readily recognizable as a tool in the fire service. It is one that we use frequently,” Boyd said. “Thank you very much for all of the service that you have done.”
Boyd said making the decision to walk away from the fire service is a very difficult one, but he believes it is an exciting time in Alexander's life to turn a new chapter.
Alexander was also presented with his firefighting helmet and a shadow box that contained his uniform patches, badges, pins and name tags he wore during his service. His comrades laid a flag which had flown at the station on top of the box.
Retired Fire Chief David Hudgins said Alexander was someone you could always count on.
“I came here in 1986 and Jeff was already here, so for my whole career here, for 26 years, Jeff was on the force. Jeff knows what it was like when we only had two on an engine,” Hudgins said. “As an incident commander, when you send somebody into a fire you're taking some responsibility on yourself. That is not an easy thing to do. Every time I had to send you and your crew in, I always had confidence in you that you would take care of your people.”
Alexander’s daughter, Lanie, thanked her father's fellow firefighters for taking care of him on the job and bringing him home safe from each shift.
“I want to thank every single one of y’all, and even the ones I may not have known. Y’all are very important to me, because you are important to my dad. Y’all have done a great job in having each other’s back and keeping my dad safe,” Lanie said. “I could not explain how happy I am to have this man home every night and to know that he is safe at all times.”