Thirty years ago, Fairfax County was more open space than urban space. Most residents commuted to the District of Columbia to reach their daily employment. Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department had a total personnel compliment of 600 career members.
In April 1977, a young firefighter, just out of recruit school, named Michael P. Neuhard became one of those 600 when he reported to his first duty assignment at Station 11, Penn Daw, in Mount Vernon District. He had entered recruit school on the first working day of that year — Jan. 3, 1977.
On Friday, Feb. 2, 30 years later, Fire Chief Michael P. Neuhard presided over the graduation ceremony for the department's 120th recruit class. It was his last official act as chief and as a "firefighter's firefighter." Neuhard was moving on to become the deputy administrator for Stafford County.
"It's been both an exciting and rewarding career," said Neuhard, sitting in the departmental conference room on the seventh floor of the Massey Building in Fairfax City where his office has been since becoming Chief in June 2003. "There's been a massive change in Fairfax County over the last 30 years. And, our department has had to grow and change as well to meet those community changes."
TODAY, THE department has a personnel complement of more than 1,400 with specialties ranging from one of the world's most accomplished Search & Rescue Teams to Emergency Medical Services and Special Operations. "This Fire and Rescue Department is now one of largest in the country and is considered a leader in the fire services industry," Neuhard wrote in his farewell message to the department.
"We've had to change our services and capabilities. When I started there was no cave-in team, no hazardous material team, no urban search and rescue team," Neuhard said.
"We are now running over 90,000 calls a year. That more than triple what it was 30 years ago. Everything has changed — even the protective clothing the firefighters wear."
What hasn't changed is the community services provided by the department to Fairfax County residents. The department has also increased its community outreach programs and services, according to Neuhard.
"Our firefighters see far beyond the regular job they do everyday," he said. "They find ways to help those in need throughout the community." Neuhard cited an example where paramedics, while make an emergency call discovered an elderly couple with no food in their home. "Those paramedics made sure that changed."
"Mike is one of the best chiefs we have ever had," said Board of Supervisors Chair Gerry Connolly (D-At-large). "Having come up through the ranks, he is truly a firefighter's firefighter."
"He has a total knowledge of the county and has made major contributions to the department's growth and professionalism," Connolly said. "We are really going to miss him. These are going to be very big shoes to fill."
That was seconded by former Fairfax County Fire Chief Glenn Gaines. "Mike Neuhard accomplished something very unique in his role as an officer and later fire chief of a large organization," Gaines said, in a tribute to Neuhard during his retirement event. "He enjoyed the respect and high regard of the line force, his colleagues, the political leadership, his management team and the citizens he served. That is a rarity in the private, corporate or public sector."
THE FIRST DECADE of Neuhard's career was spent at Penn Daw Station. He next went to Station 11, Mount Vernon. "Over the years I served at practically every station along The Highway [Route 1]," Neuhard said.
In the fall of 1986 he was promoted to lieutenant and returned to training. That was followed by a promotion to captain and assignment to Oakton as head of the Hazardous Materials Team.
That experience came in particularly useful when in 1990 Neuhard was detailed to deal with an incident involving a massive underground leakage of petroleum, mostly gasoline, from the Fairfax City bulk storage facility that polluted the area of Mantua and posed the potential for a significant disaster to residents of that community. The county executive at the time assigned the Fire & Rescue Department as the lead agency on clean up. Neuhard drew the assignment of liaison officer and project leader.
During a community meeting citizens were getting a pass-the-buck attitude from all federal, state and other county authorities, according to Gaines. "Texaco was not sure they were responsible," he said. "The federal government had not accepted responsibility for managing the leak and deferred to the state. The state was essentially taking a hands off attitude and deferred to the county. Other county agencies refused to act."
Sitting in the back of the room at that meeting waiting their turn to speak, Gaines and Neuhard observed all the other governmental representatives "throwing up their hands, refusing to offer help or solutions," according to Gaines.
"Mike turned to me and said 'Chief all these people are hearing is no, let's start saying yes.' I said 'you are right of course Mike, let's do it,'" Gaines said in his tribute to Neuhard. That aid to those residents lead by Neuhard continued for more than a year.
Later, at a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors' meeting a Mantua citizen stated, "When every other agency said no. When we needed our government most they all said no except for the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department. Thank God for those people," said Gaines. "It all started with Mike and his willingness to serve and his compassion for others, regardless of the cost."
AFTER SUCCESSFULLY MEETING that challenge, Battalion Chief Neuhard moved on to fire prevention and started the Enforcement and Investigation Division in the Fire Marshal's Office in 1993. From there he became deputy chief for Emergency Medical Services and Special Operations in 1999.
In 2000, he was promoted assistant fire chief for Administration. On May 2, 2003 he was appointed acting fire chief which was made permanent the next month. "Now it's over. But, it will never really be over. Being a firefighter was always my first love," he said.
That assessment was buttressed by Mike Mohler, president, Fairfax County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics, Local 2068. "My relationship with Chief Neuhard started 30 years ago when we were both members of the same recruit class," said Mohler. "It was obvious to all of us in that class that there was something very special about this guy."
"He was not only very smart but he was also the fastest runner among us," Mohler said. "As he proceeded on his career it was also obvious that he was going to succeed. I have always been amazed at how his mind works. He is especially excellent under pressure and can handle conflicting requirements with such apparent ease."
"We've had very few leaders come along in our time with his skills and abilities. It will be very tough to replace him," Mohler said.
"I'm going to miss this job and this community of Fairfax County," said Neuhard. "The people here are the most generous and giving I have ever known." That has been proved by their total support of the annual Christmas toy drive, according to Neuhard.
This past holiday season Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department collected enough toys for more than 35,000 children in their own campaign and contributed an additional 40,000 toys to the U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots Campaign. That was three times more than their closest competitor in the Washington Metropolitan Region, Prince Georges County Fire Department.
ON FEB. 5, Neuhard started the next chapter of his active and involved life. As assistant county administrator under Steve Crosby, the Stafford County administrator, he also brings to his new role a talent very necessary in such a position — the ability to build cooperation among various factions. He demonstrated that as chair of the Fire Chiefs Committee of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
"The other area where we have seen a major change in the last 30 years is the development of regional cooperation among fire chiefs," Neuhard said. "This has been phenomenal." It was particularly evident on Sept. 11, 2001 during the Pentagon terrorist attack and in the ensuing months of meeting potential terrorist threats.
In his new position Neuhard acknowledged he will be responsible for a variety of management areas such as code enforcement, zoning, public utilities, transportation and redevelopment. "I've not been given a mandate yet. But, there is a list of priorities. I'm there to assist the county administrator and work with him and the Board of Supervisors," Neuhard said.
"One of the prime reasons I took this job is because I've always been very interested in local government," he said. "That's where things happen."
A native of Mobile, Ala., Neuhard has been a resident of Arkansas, Maryland and Pennsylvania prior to moving to Virginia in 1976. "I've lived in Virginia longer than I've lived anywhere in my life," he said.
Neuhard graduated from Northern Virginia Community College with an associate degree and received his bachelor's degree in liberal studies from the University of Mary Washington. He is also a graduate of the Senior Executive Institute, Weldon Cooper Center, University of Virginia.
The other change in his new life is that his commute will be significantly reduced. Neuhard, his wife Jill, and their three children, Chris, 18, Ryan 13, and Jennifer, 10, have been residents of Aquia Harbor since 1986.
"Stafford and Fairfax counties have a lot of connections. The impact of BRAC is also being felt in Stafford County with the increase in personnel coming to Quantico Marine Base," he said
In his final letter "From The Fire Chief," published in the department's most recent magazine, Neuhard summed up his 30 years with Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department with the following words:
"When asked what I am most proud of in my career with the Fire and Rescue Department, it is the relationships I have been privileged to have been a part of, and the knowledge that they will continue for many years to come. I've learned many things from all of you. I would like to offer you the following quote on achievement from William A. Ward, an American author, editor, pastor and teacher:
'Before you speak, listen.
Before you write, think.
Before you spend, earn.
Before you invest, investigate.
Before you criticize, wait.
Before you pray, forgive.
Before you quit, try.
Before you retire, save.
Before you die, give.'"