On the Job with James Carswell

Albany Fire Chief and EMA director James Carswell stands beside the old bell, which was used in the late 1800’s to alert firefighters of location and types of fires. (Staff Photo: Jim West)

Albany Fire Chief and EMA director James Carswell stands beside the old bell, which was used in the late 1800’s to alert firefighters of location and types of fires. (Staff Photo: Jim West)

When James Carswell was growing up in Albany around Whitley Avenue and West First, he never dreamed about being a firefighter. But Carswell found his big red truck after a layoff at Water Gas and Light in 1974.

In the nearly 39 years since then, Carswell has worked at every position at the Albany Fire Department and in the process e April 2005.

Carswell is quick to say his life with the Fire Department is his “dream profession.” But if he had not chosen firefighting, he may have been a farmer. Carswell took a break from his duties recently to share a question-and-answer session with Herald reporter Jim West.

Q. What was your first job?

A. Other than helping my brother on his paper route, I worked at Albany Typewriter Exchange. I was there during the summer after I graduated from Albany High, before starting at Albany Vocational School where I studied drafting and design.

Q. What was the first thing you spent money on when you received your first ever paycheck?

A. Probably eating out. When I was growing up, eating in restaurants was something you did just occasionally. Even when we traveled out of town we packed a sack lunch and stopped at roadside parks to eat.

Q. What’s the single most effective technique you found over the past two years for keeping employees motivated?

A. New employees understand what their starting salary is, but they still have expectations that if they work hard, the better their lives will be and the better they’ll be able to support their families in years to come. There really is no one single thing to motivate everyone. The key to being a good leader is in understanding that everyone is motivated by different things. I used to think that everyone just wanted to be treated fairly, but have come to realize that a lot of them want special treatment, not fair and equal treatment.

Q. What led you to your current position? Why did you want to be a firefighter?

A. I started at Water Gas and Light as a draftsman in 1972 and worked there for two and a half years. The economy tanked at that point and, along with some others, I was cut. It was last in, first out. There were other jobs available — firefighter, police officer. I became a firefighter on New Years Day 1975. Since that time I worked through all the positions.

Q. Do you have a role model or mentor in your career?

A. On a personal level, my brother has always been the person I looked up to. He’s always been my big brother. Our father died when I was 17 and my brother assumed so many roles for me in my early years. On a professional level there have been several people I looked up to.

Q. What is the biggest lesson you as a community leader learned from the recent recession?

A. People expect more and more services, but want to pay less and less for them. When I started, the service provided by a fire department was, for the most part, responding to fires. Now we have to be experts on, and be equipped for flooding, hazardous materials, high angle rescue, trench rescue, water rescue, extrication from automobiles, structural collapse and so on.

Q. If you could turn the clock back on one aspect of technology – examples e-mail, automated phone systems, cell phones, PDAs, etc. – what would you most like to see go away?

A. Smartphones. Because of them I’m never away from my office. I’m available 24/7, 365 days a week, whether I’m on vacation or sick leave. The only time that e-mail is off is from when I go to bed until I get up in the morning. The phone is always on, though and my staff and I receive text messages on all structure fires.

Q. What is your favorite work-related gadget?

A. Smartphones. There’s no way we could get everything done with our present staffing without them.

Q. What is your favorite tradition?

A. The fire service itself. It’s a close-knit family unit. While we don’t always get along, when we need each other you can count on them being there.

Q. What was the last book you read? Do you have things you read daily or regularly?

A. The Bible on my Smart Phone. I have an app that provides daily readings.

Q. I’m up and going by? And what is your morning routine?

A. I’m up by 6:30 a.m. to check for any emails during the night. I shower, get dressed and take my coffee to work. I’m there by 7:30 a.m. to get updates from my staff.

Q. What famous person would you like to meet, and Why?

A. Christ. I believe everyone makes mistakes in living their lives. But seeing Christ should be everyone’s goal in getting through it all.

Q. Favorite hobbies or activity outside work?

A. I like to fish, but I don’t get to do it often enough, and woodworking.

Q. If you could take back one business decision you made in your career, what would it be?

A. I have no regrets — not because I haven’t made mistakes, but because learning from those mistakes has helped me make better decisions later.

Q. Best thing about your job?

A. Getting to work around so many people that honestly want to help people, even at the expense of their own well-being. It takes a special person that wants to to work in public safety. The hours are long, and the pay is not that great. But every now and then you get to make a positive affect on someone’s life.

Q. Worst thing about your job?

A. Having to deal with people who think only of themselves when making a decision. Working in local government you have to think of citizens first in every decision.

Q. The most beneficial course I took in school was?

A. Probably math. From working on budgets to flowing water through fire hoses, it all requires being good with math.

Q. What would be your dream job if you were able to pick a position outside your current career path?

A. Well first of all, I’m in my dream profession. But outside the fire service, I’d say maybe farming. It has always amazed me how we take farmers for granted. But we still want food on the table at dinner time. They have to do their jobs while everything seems to be working against them.

Q. Finish this thought; “on the first anniversary of my retirement, I see myself…

A. Hopefully still in good health and enjoying myself.

Q. What is the one trait a strong business or community leader cannot afford to be without?

A. Treating people fairly, even when they don’t want fair treatment — only special treatment.

Q. What kind of music might I find on your list of most played on your iPod?

A. Mostly country. That’s mainly because I like the emotions expressed in country music.

Q. What do you think is the biggest change Albany will see in the next 10 years?

A. I think Albany and Dougherty County is loaded down with too many naysayers. I understand that train is an easy one to jump on, but if those same naysayers would get out and push, just maybe we could start getting somewhere.If that’s not happening we’ll be in the the same place ten years from now.

Q. What was the best vacation you’ve ever taken? Why?

A. I hope I haven’t had my best one yet, but all of them with my grand kids have been great.

Q. What are the biggest changes you have seen in your specific line of business over the past few years?

A. Technology. As I mentioned earlier, we have so many things that make us more efficient. Putting that in perspective, when I was hired, if the Chief needed a break from the phone he just left his office. If he sent someone a letter, he knew it would be over a week before he got a reply. That would drive people crazy. Now they expect instant feedback. Of course, a lot of our basic gear has changed as well. When I started as a firefighter, our protective clothing consisted just of canvass bunker gear to shed water, and plastic hard hats. None of it offered real protection against fire or smoke. That’s all different now.