After 18 years with the Alexandria Fire Department and nearly 28 years as a firefighter, Richard Sisler, public education officer, has decided to take his expertise to private industry — to trade in his firefighter gear for a suit and tie.
"This is my first venture in my entire adult life into the private sector. I'm both excited and scared at the same time," he said.
Sisler has been the driving force behind not only expanding fire prevention awareness to all levels of the Alexandria community, both children and adults, but also in developing and nurturing the City's fledgling Citizen Emergency Response Team [CERT] program.
He most recently acquired the additional title Citizen Corps liaison.
IN HIS NEW ENVIRONMENT with Ross Perot's EDS Corporation, working out of their Herndon office near Dulles International Airport, he will fulfill the role of a business planning professional with emphasis on "keeping the business functioning in a time of disaster."
One of the greatest threats to any business in this time is to lose their ability to function due to a disaster of any nature, natural or man-made, according to Sisler. "My job will be to put in place the practices and train the personnel to make sure EDS has a business continuity plan and a functioning emergency management services program," he said.
"It is absolutely essential that business keeps going in any type of disaster. One of the primary goals of terrorism is to disrupt the economy. Continuity is more important now than it has ever been," he said.
"We know that natural disaster will occur, such as what has happened these past couple of weeks in Florida. But, terrorism could really hurt us," Sisler said.
One of the most frustrating elements of emergency preparedness to Sisler is, "We are still killing people every day in fires and accidents that are preventable. We can't lose sight of that. When you talk about emergency preparedness you need to keep focused on the preventable tragedies," he said.
RECOGNITION OF THAT commitment and dedication to his chosen profession was honored by his colleagues during a luncheon Tuesday in his honor at the Alexandria Holiday Inn on First Street. It included his wife Bernadette and their eight children, which range in age from 21 to nine months.
"When I came here to be fire chief we had an opening for public education officer. When I was told Rich wanted the job I was amazed," former Alexandria Fire Chief Thomas Hawkins said.
"But, I came to realize that was the smartest decision I ever made to name him to that position. When Rich went out to the community, the results were always positive," he said.
That assessment was buttressed by Alexandria's present Fire Chief Gary Mesaris. "His commitment and dedication to this part of our job is outstanding. He is responsible for our model CERT program, which has been cited nationwide," Mesaris said.
"Public education is a specialty. You either get it or you don't. Rich is a natural. I'm very proud of the opportunity he is getting," said Arthur Dahlberg, director, Code Enforcement.
City Councilman Rob Krupicka, co-chair, Citizens Corps, said, "Community education is one of the most important jobs there is. While everyone thinks emergency preparedness is important it's hard to get people involved. Rich had been able to do just that. People actually paid attention to what he was telling them."
Mark Penn, the City's Emergency Management Coordinator, summed up the void that will be left by Sisler's departure. "It's an impossible task to replace Rich. He lived his job," Penn said to the crowd that filled the hotel's restaurant.
IN RESPONSE to the accolades, Sisler said, "Never in my wildest dreams did I think this job would be as much fun as it has been. And, if we could have afforded to live in Alexandria, I probably would have never gone anywhere else."
Sisler and his family live in Winchester, Va. He has driven the 158-mile round-trip commute daily for the past 18 years. His new place of employment will reduce that commute to only 59 miles.
"The miles aren't so bad, it's the time. At the new location I'll be at work just as the real traffic is starting to build up," Sisler said.
A native of Uniontown, Pa., Sisler began his career in 1977. "I started by riding on the back of a fire truck going to fires," he said. During his tenure in Alexandria he has served as a firefighter, EMT, hazardous materials technician, heavy rescue technician, fire marshal and inspector, and fire services instructor, prior to becoming public education officer and Citizens Corps liaison.
"The most rewarding part of my career was when I turned to public education. There you do the whole gamut. People are asking questions about everything," Sisler said
"You get to reach more people at the best time of their lives. In firefighting, unfortunately, you are often meeting people on the worst day of their life," he said.
"The CERT and Citizens Corps effort has changed the whole face of emergency management. For years what we (firefighters) did was mystifying to most of the general public. But CERT and Citizens Corps has opened that door for more citizen participation in the operations of the fire department," Sisler said.
IN HIS NEW ASSIGNMENT he will be dealing with a corporation that has offices and clients worldwide. "My goal is to spend most of my time in this area. But, I will be doing some traveling. I will also be teaching emergency management and business continuity at various conferences for EDS," he said.
Sisler hopes this new venture will afford him the opportunity to spend more time participating in community and school activities in Winchester. He is looking forward to being involved with the Winchester Fire Department.
"Both our sons are volunteer firefighters in Winchester. And, both want to become professional firefighters," he said.
Sisler assured, "Nothing's going to drop through the cracks in the transition. Everybody will be picking up the pieces until Mark gets it reorganized. We will be reaching out to as many citizens as ever." No replacement has been selected at this time.
"I'll never be able to get to everyone who has supported our programs to thank them personally. I can't get around to shake their hand. But, I sure wish I could," Sisler said.
"The hardest thing is going to be leaving all the friendships I've made over the years. It's those friendships that really count," he said.
The other hard part of his new adjustment, he admitted, will be getting used to wearing suits and ties to work. "I'm used to wearing fire department attire. I told my wife she'd have to put my clothes on hangers designated by days of the week. Then I'll just put on what ever she has picked for that day."