COLORADO SPRINGS — In the 10 years since the Black Forest Fire, one man has not only helped rebuild the Black Forest Fire Department to be better prepared for any emergency, including a wildfire but he has also rebuilt his home in Black Forest that was lost to the fire.
After a 15-year career with the Colorado Springs Fire Department (CSFD) and five years serving on the Black Forest Fire Department Board of Directors, PJ Langmaid has been the Fire Chief in Black Forest for four years.
He did not switch departments to climb the career ladder.
“I didn't want this job; that's why we joke about me being the accidental Fire Chief," said Chief Langmaid, laughing.
So how does an accident like that happen, going from the rank of firefighter with CSFD, catapulting over to Lieutenant, Captain, Battalion Chief, straight to Fire Chief with a new department? Chief Langmaid said it was a process.
“Essentially, the community had asked me to get on the Board of Directors right after the fire when there were some questions about the department. I wasn't interested in that. I wanted to rebuild my house, but at the end of the day, the community kept saying things like 'you know you're the one person who's a firefighter, who lost his house...' I was also being told our community needed some new leadership on the board," said Langmaid.
Chief Langmaid tells me he reluctantly ran for - and was elected to - the board of directors. He served for five years, helping to guide improvements in the department.
Then, he said, he felt it was a good time to resign his seat on the board and leave that work to others.
“For the first time since the fire, I felt this huge weight come off my shoulders of hey, 'I don't have any responsibilities other than my job with the Colorado Springs Fire Department," said Langmaid.
But that peace didn’t last long. “I want to say it was about 48 hours later... the Chairman of the Fire Board called me and asked if I would just come in for 90 days and do an operational audit of the department. I confirmed with him, ‘We're talking 90 days, right?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, of course.’ That was four years ago.”
Four years into his role as Chief Executive Officer and ten years after the fire, one thing remains at the top of Chief Langmiad's list of concerns: another wildfire in Black Forest.
“That's always the number one concern because of the environment we live in. Two-thirds of the community are in a really similar condition today, to the conditions they were prior to the Black Forest Fire.”
As for beefing up the size of the department, Chief Langmaid says, “Ten years ago there were nine employees, nine firefighters on the apparatus... We have now gone to 24 firefighters, plus a Chief and a Deputy Chief, and a full-time Training Officer as well. That alone is a vastly different capability and that doesn't include the six wildland technicians we have also added. Ten years ago, the department only staffed one firehouse full time, now we staff two firehouses full time, so our capabilities have grown considerably.”
More important than increasing the size and capabilities of the department is the culture change, and principles of leadership that the Chief himself adheres to. Principles that he expects each and every member of the Black Forest Fire Department to follow as well.
“Most importantly, it’s the mindset. The expectation is that these men and women are aggressive with problems. Which means when they see an issue, it's on them to solve it... I would rather them default towards being aggressive towards problems than being hesitant.”
While the Chief isn’t publicly saying how much longer he plans to be in the role, there is one thing he knows for sure.
“The thing I communicate to people all the time is thinking strategically. Where I want this department to go, I won't even probably live to see, because it’s my job as the Chief Executive Officer to be thinking basically about the next one to five decades. Where does this organization need to be? and start setting them up for that future.”
In the meantime, all the training and day-to-day operations of the department are focused on one thing, said Chief Langmaid.
“For us, it's all about the mission. You know, people often ask of leadership, what comes first, the mission or the people? And they really are the same thing. One side of the coin is the mission, and the other side is the team... It's about the people out there that we serve, and then as you move up in the organization, it's about the people in the organization that are out serving the people. So, it's always about serving others. And that's really what we focus on all the time.”
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