Community mindedness. Proactive leadership. And a deep passion for what he does.
That’s what drives Jeff Johnson to be the most productive and results-driven fire chief he can for the city of Newport News.
Johnson, 53, took the reins of the Newport News Fire Department (NNFD) two years ago. He moved to Newport News from Kansas City, Mo., where he retired as deputy fire chief. The job and the area drew him to make the leap to a completely different part of the country.
“It’s been great,” he says. “I love it here so much.”
Johnson has been in the fire service for decades, working his way up the ladder of success. He brought to Newport News an approach that centers around working together efficiently within the fire department and being open with the community. He is a man who studies process and procedure and makes changes to spark energy and forward progress.
“We work as a team,” he says. “No one has all the answers.”
NNFD is composed of 11 fire stations, 12 engine companies, six ladder companies, 12 medic units, three fire boats, a bomb team, three EMT captains and two battalion chiefs. In the stations, there are 360 employees. In total, there are 400 people working for NNFD. Johnson has only praise for the department he took over.
“I came into an organization that performs very well in the field,” he says. “And in customer service, we also do an excellent job.”
Recently, NNFD administration moved from downtown to a large office on Thimble Shoals Boulevard in Oyster Point. Johnson is extremely pleased with the additional space. He now has meeting rooms and space to plan and activate his ideas and goals. And he has lots of those.
He wants to continue improving the department and working to find new ways to engage with the community. He is a proponent of transparency, both inside the department and with the public. He plans to start a “dashboard” to give the public a daily glimpse of incidents and what caused them. The more people know about what happens in their city, he says, the better.
When COVID-19 vaccines became available, members of the fire department stepped up to administer vaccines at the Christopher Newport University clinic. It’s just another way, Johnson says, that the department can help the community.
Johnson has implemented several projects, such as starting a steering committee to tackle ideas and new technology, looking at what the department is not doing and then recommending how to better it. What’s different is that it’s not just composed of the top brass.
“We bring everyone to the table,” he says. “A firefighter with one year has equal say and input as the fire chief. It’s a very diverse group. There’s a lot we have been able to implement across the board.”
The task force exemplifies Johnson’s philosophy on leadership. He is a firm believer in listening to the rank and file, and not isolating himself. He is out in the community, stops by fire stations and even shows up at calls.
Newport News presents a unique set of fire-fighting challenges with its narrow geography, large water presence and significant number of industrial businesses, including Newport News Shipbuilding. “We have a lot of geographical differences in the community,” Johnson says. “It takes a lot of education, tactics and strategies to fight fires.”
NNFD finds different ways to conquer those differences. Because of the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel, the fire department has a firefighting robot that can go into the tunnel and be operated by remote control.
At NNFD, there is a slogan: “When someone calls 911, no one else is coming. It’s us. We’ve got to solve the problem.” So, what does it take to be an effective firefighter? Johnson says, among other things, a good mechanical aptitude to understand how things work. “Under stress, you have to be able to break situations down to steps,” he says.
And what defines a successful fire chief?
“It takes someone who puts the men and women in the fire department first, above themselves,” he says. “You have to be a good listener. You have to look at what goes well and what doesn’t. You have to be able to make a decision. I believe that a good plan well implemented is better than a great plan not implemented. You’ve got to be approachable and visible and spend a lot of time out in the field.”
Coming to Newport News was a decision that both Johnson and his wife have embraced. They enjoy the new geography and being near water after so many years in the Midwest. And Johnson is excited to continue his firefighting career.
“I just love the camaraderie and that adrenaline rush of never knowing what will happen,” he says. “I couldn’t do anything else.”
TO THE POINT:
Newport News Fire Department
Address: 610 Thimble Shoals Blvd., Bldg. 5, Ste. 500, Newport News, VA 23606
Contact: Jeff Johnson, Newport News Fire Chief