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From Dairy Cows To Burning Buildings — A Life In Evolution

City's new fire chief moves into office.

When Gary A. Mesaris first moved to Herndon it was home to two large dairy farms. After school and during the summers he worked on one of them.

That was in the early 1960's. He was a freshman at Herndon High School and had just transferred from George Mason High School, Herndon's chief rival. Not being the shy type, he wore his George Mason jacket to school.

It was also his intention to become a dairy farmer when he enrolled in the Agricultural Dairy Science course at the University of Maryland. But during a break between the second and third semesters, fate stepped in and those milking machines got traded in for machines that went much faster and carried a lot more gear.

That was when Gary A. Mesaris, potential agronomist became Gary A. Mesaris, firefighter and EMT.

"I had stopped by the Herndon firehouse out of curiosity and was immediately impressed by the comradery I found," said Alexandria's new fire chief.

"I decided not to go back to school, which did not make either my mother or grandmother very happy, and joined the Volunteer Fire Department in August, 1965," he said. "But because I was not in school it made me more vulnerable to the draft. I was inducted into the Army before I really got started on my firefighter career."

Mesaris became a medical technician assigned to the hospital in Seoul, Korea, where they treated wounded from Vietnam. "I signed on as a medical escort for wounded being returned to the States. On one of those visits in 1967 I took the written test for firefighter," he explained.

He was discharged on the West Coast and envisioned seeing the country by bus on his way back home. That notion lasted as far as Butte, Mont., where the romance of bus travel got traded in for the expedience of a jet airliner.

On June 3, 1968, firefighter Gary Mesaris began his 22-year career with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department in Vienna, Va. "Since I had not yet been through recruit training I was assigned to Vienna until the next class began.

"But, because I didn't have my Red Cross first aid card, I wasn't allowed to ride on the ambulance. This meant that the guys who had ambulance duty wouldn't get a break. That didn't make them very happy. The fact that I had served as a Chief Dispensary Specialist in the Army didn't count. I still needed that card," he said.

ONCE MESARIS completed recruit training in early 1969, he was assigned to Herndon, where he had first become enamored with being a firefighter. From there he was reassigned to Reston where he became a driver in 1972.

That started not only a series of assignments that took him to a myriad stations throughout Fairfax County, but also a string of promotions that culminated in his being named Chief Deputy Fire Chief for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. He retired from the department at that rank in 1990.

By 1980, Captain Mesaris knew that a firefighting career was "in his blood" and that he wanted "to go on up. I also knew that in order to do that you had to stop riding on trucks," he confided. "There was an opening in research and planning, so I went for it."

Mesaris became an aide to the administrative deputy doing analysis, budgeting, and management. Then in 1981, he requested and received, a transfer to the training academy where he "managed the overall facility as well as overseeing all programs."

IN THE FALL of 1981, Mesaris became a battalion chief. "But, I was only a battalion chief for six weeks. One of my shorter assignments," he said. "I got a call from the Deputy Chief for Administrative Services asking me to become deputy chief of operations."

During that assignment is when the Fairfax County Technical Rescue Team was formed which became the unit that has been called to disasters throughout the world to participate in rescue operations. They often operate under the aegis of the Federal Emergency Management Agency as USAR.

From there he was promoted to chief deputy fire chief under then Chief Warren Isman. On Oct. 22, 1990, Mesaris took over the reins of the Fairfax City Fire Department as their chief.

That began another 13-year span in his evolving journey that was supposed to have been comprised of cows and milk, not smoke, fire and life saving techniques. But along the way he also satisfied his mother's desire for him to complete his higher education.

Starting at the Northern Virginia Community College in Fire Science, he received an associate degree in Applied Fire Science. From there Mesaris earned a bachelor's degree in Fire Administration and Technology from George Mason University and his master's degree from George Washington University in the same discipline.

ONE YEAR PRIOR to taking his new position in Fairfax City, he married his wife, Tammy. A native of Bradford, Penn., she came to the Washington area at the urging of her friend, Pam Weiger, who was working for Gary Mesaris.

Pam and Tammy had met in Amarillo, Texas, where Tammy had gone to work for her cousin, according to Mesaris. While there, Tammy worked with Weiger who, through the twists and turns of fate, came to Washington to become the communications director for Mesaris while he worked for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. The Mesaris's now have two children, Mathew, 12, and Meredith, 10.

As Fairfax City's chief, Mesaris implemented a series of accomplishments as acknowledged during the farewell ceremonies following his acceptance of the Alexandria position. A few of those included:

* Shifted the Emergency Medical Service to an all Advanced

Life Support system.

* Placed paramedics on fire suppression units.

* Implemented the Rescue Engine concept to provide specialized rescue capabilities to the City without the cost of additional personnel or apparatus.

* Established a full time Life Safety Education program.

DURING THOSE ceremonies it was noted, "Chief Mesaris leaves the citizens of the City of Fairfax with a fire department that is well trained, well equipped, and staffed by highly motivated career and volunteer professionals who carryout their duties in a competent, courteous and carrying manner."

In comparing the two departments, Fairfax City and Alexandria, Mesaris sees significant differences. "Fairfax City, although a individual department, is part of the county system. There are only two stations and a total personnel compliment of 65," he explained. By comparison, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department has a compliment of approximately 1,400.

"In Alexandria, there is real staff support at the local level. There is also more variety of venues that need to be protected. There's the waterfront, railroad, National Airport that we interact with, as well as all the city requirements. This is much more like a big city department," Mesaris emphasized.

Even though Mesaris has only been on the job in Alexandria since June, he sees several challenges. "Our emergency preparedness needs to be made more comprehensive and we need to enhance what we already have," he said.

"With development in the city we are gathering data on how this is impacting our response time. This will eventually lead to a comprehensive evaluation of our existing fire stations," he noted. "It's a matter of maintaining our excellence and improving upon it."

Alexandria City Manager Philip Sunderland said, "Chief Mesaris brings us critical firefighting and management experience. He will be an outstanding leader of our department and a wonderful addition to the community."

Upon Mesaris' appointment, Interim Chief James Gower acknowledged his friend of more than 25 years, as "a great choice for our department and the city. Gary has been involved with the coordinated working relation" of the departments throughout Northern Virginia "and is familiar with the structure" at this critical time in the area's history.

A person who goes back a long way with Mesaris is Arthur Dalhberg, Alexandria's director, Fire/Code Enforcement. He worked with the new Chief for five years in Fairfax City in the areas of code enforcement before coming to Alexandria.

"From my perspective I'm really glad he's here. He thoroughly understands the interaction between enforcement and suppression. I'm excited to have the opportunity to work with him again," Dahlberg exclaimed. "I had a very good working relationship with him in Fairfax City."

It was during Mesaris' tenure in Fairfax City that building and fire code administration was successfully integrated within the Fire Department. "Fairfax City's code enforcement office is modeled after Alexandria's," Dahlberg noted.

Evaluating the personnel situation, Mesaris cautioned, "We also need to begin preparing more people to move into senior positions. A lot of our present leadership could be approaching retirement and we need to be prepared."

The program for his farewell party in Fairfax City was headed: "Chief Gary A. Mesaris — Leader, Mentor, Friend."

It is not only a summation of the man but a definition the many roles he will be fulfilling in his latest evolution.