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Adam K. Thiel: Alexandria's New Fire Chief

A life of public service and knowledge expansion .

Like many young people Adam K. Thiel entered college without any clear vision of what he really wanted to do with his life. His only guidepost was that he wanted it to be "service oriented."

One day driving to American University where he was a freshman he saw a sign seeking volunteers for EMS personnel at the volunteer fire company in Cabin John, Maryland. That quirk of fate started a journey that most recently culminated in his being sworn in as Alexandria's new Fire Chief at age 35.

"I finished EMS training and went on to enroll in the Fire Academy. I also lived in the fire house for most of my first year. I was still enrolled in college but took a semester off. I had found what I wanted to do with the rest of my life," Thiel said sitting in his new office at Station 204 on Powhatan Street.

"Both the team work and the life-long learning aspects of being in the fire service were what really appealed to me. You can never know all the various aspects of this profession no matter how long your career," he said.

"I knew I wanted to go to work in a place that combined both firefighting and EMS. I had intended to apply for a position immediately upon completion of my training but I was encouraged to complete my degree," Thiel said.

"My parents had moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, so I decided to transfer to the University of North Carolina. However, I stayed in the firefighting business by volunteering at fire departments in both Chapel Hill and Durham," he stated.

Thiel rose through the ranks quickly of the Durham department which was in transition from volunteer to professional. He also helped accomplish that transition.

"School was actually something I was doing to finish. Like a lot of firefighters I had a job which was school and I had firefighting," Thiel said.

He graduated from UNC with a degree in history. "I took that to maintain a high enough grade point average to eventually go to

graduate school which I knew I wanted to do," he said.

He has kept that promise to himself. He now holds a masters degree in Public Administration from George Mason University, a Bachelor of Science in Fire Science from the University of Maryland's University College, and has completed the course work for his doctorate in public policy at GMU. "I am working on my dissertation, but it may take me 10 years. I also started on my bachelor's degree in chemistry," Thiel said.

While in North Carolina, Thiel met his wife Katherine, a native North Carolinian, who was a student at Duke University at the time. They now have two children, their six year old daughter Sophie and three year old son Cooper.

UPON COMPLETION of college Thiel applied "to every fire department in Northern Virginia." He was hired by the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department.

"When I came to Northern Virginia I fully expected to spent 25 years with Fairfax County and retire from there. Then I figured that's when I seek a job as a Fire Chief somewhere, probably back in North Carolina, as I told my wife," he said.

But, after seven years with Fairfax County fate stepped in in the form of Governor Mark Warner who tapped Thiel to become the executive director of the Virginia Department of Fire Programs. "I finished up at the Fairfax County Fire Department at 2 a.m. one morning in April 2002 -- drove to Richmond and started my new role later that same day," Thiel recalled.

The job included administering grants to fire departments statewide, having oversight for training and certification programs, administration of the Virginia Fire Marshal Academy, and working in close cooperation with the Homeland Security Task Force. "I was averaging more than 1,000 miles per week driving throughout the state on various assignments and projects," he said.

That dedication to his role was verified by Virginia Secretary of Public Safety John Marshall. "Adam is totally dedicated and committed to the fire service. Alexandria is very fortunate to get him. People will see in Adam a chief who has not lost touch with where he started," Marshall said.

"Our son was born in December 2004. Six months later I looked at a picture of him and didn't recognize the photo, that's when I realized I had been traveling far too much," Thiel said.

"I felt I needed to make a radical change in my life to preserve our family."

Still determined to work for a fire department that combined firefighting and EMS, Thiel began his search. "There are two areas in the nation that combine those two and both are top rated -- Northern Virginia and Greater Phoenix, Arizona," Thiel explained.

"Phoenix has long been held up as a national leader and I decided I wanted to go out there and see how they worked," he said. That's when Thiel join the Goodyear, Arizona, Fire Department, a suburb of Phoenix.

"There were a lot of opportunities to build the department and I

was able to participate in a lot of regional activities," Thiel said. He served there for just under three years. Goodyear Fire Department Chief, Mark Gaillard said. "I have nothing but the highest regard for Adam. Alexandria has gained a first class leader. He is not only a very knowledgeable person but also he is always concerned about the community and its residents," Gaillard said.

That assessment was buttressed by Thiel's former Chief at the FCF&R Department, Michael Newhard, who now serves as deputy County Administrator in Stafford County, Virginia. "Alexandria will greatly benefit from both his youthful energy and his depth of knowledge. When he served in state government he greatly increased communications among all the various elements of fire safety statewide. That has benefited everyone," Newhard emphasized.

AFTER NEARLY three years in Arizona, the pull to come back East to Virginia and the Carolinas was, as Thiel described it, "very big. You often don't realize how much something means to you until you are away from it. That applied to both my wife and myself when it came to this part of the country," he said.

Thiel grew up in Chicago, living both in the city and its suburbs. However, he spent every summer of his youth with relatives in various parts of Virginia. "Most of my family is from Virginia. My father, who died my freshman year in college, was from Williamsburg and my mother is a native of Richmond," Thiel explained.

"I had made a list of the requirements that were very important to me and the places I would like to be the Fire Chief. At the top of that list was Alexandria for both its quality of life and its history -- I really love and enjoy history," Thiel said.

"When this opening came up my wife saw it first and reminded me of my list and the fact that I had always hoped to become the Chief of a department. I did my due diligence and was extremely impressed with what I found. This is a great department with great people," he said.

"The true test of any organization is how it reacts to an event for which you couldn't have written a plan ahead of time. That makes a value based organization. Agencies that consistently perform well are because of their core values," he said.

"Values need to come from within the organization. They are the foundation upon which everything else is built," he said.

"There are always areas that need improvement and change. The death knell to any organization is to think no changes are possible. Everybody in this department wants it to be a world class organization," Thiel stated.

"It's okay to have problems and issues. What's not okay is to not work on solving them. I could not be more honored or humbled by

being picked for this position," he said.

Unfortunately, the drop in the housing market in the Phoenix area has slowed the move here by his wife and children. "We are trying to sell our home out there but the market is much softer than it is here," Thiel said.

When that move does take place, the Thiels will be basing their local choice of location on one guiding rule, "The closer the better," he said.

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