When Adam Thiel became chief of the Alexandria Fire Department in 2007, he took over an agency that was clinging to the past — and not just the antiques at the Friendship Firehouse Museum. The city's fire engines were so outdated that Thiel was forced to lease a 1987 vehicle from Minnesota. Some of the stations had alerting equipment built from parts purchased at Radio Shack. In one infamous example, Thiel demonstrated a piece of equipment featuring a red light bulb mounted atop a machine that looked like it came from a 1960s science fiction movie.
"When I got here, our people worked very hard to do everything they could with the resources they had available," said Thiel in between budget meetings at City Hall. "I would characterize those resources as somewhat outdated."
Now, Thiel has been tapped to become the next deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security. He leaves a fire department that's very different than the one he inherited. During his time in Alexandria, he oversaw the construction of the city's first new fire station in 30 years at Potomac Yard. More stations are in the works on Eisenhower Avenue and Beauregard Street. And all of the existing stations are slated for replacement in the next decade.
“Chief Thiel has served Alexandria with distinction,” said City Manager Rashad Young in a written statement. “His strong leadership, strategic vision, and passionate commitment to our community have left an indelible mark on our city and ensure our continued safety."
A NATIVE OF COLORADO, Thiel was raised in Chicago and studied history at the University of North Carolina before becoming a firefighter in Durham County. A year, later he moved to the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. In 2002, Democratic Gov. Mark Warner appointed Thiel to lead the Virginia Department of Fire Programs. As executive director, he served as a member of the Commonwealth Preparedness Working Group, the Virginia Emergency Response Council, the State Hazardous Materials Emergency Response Advisory Committee, and the Critical Infrastructure Working Group.
"The big opportunity there was to transform that agency in a very tight fiscal climate," said Thiel. "But the big deal was being part of the effort to address this new public policy environment around homeland security."
In 2004, Thiel moved to Arizona to become the deputy fire chief for a city called Goodyear. There he was responsible for managing the city’s response to fires, medical emergencies, hazardous material releases and rescue situations. But he was eager to come back to Virginia. So in 2007, Thiel accepted an offer to replace former Chief Gary Mesaris, who became fire chief of the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority’s Fire and Rescue Department.
“Chief Thiel is the professional we need at this time to take our fire department to the next level of excellence and professionalism," said City Manager Jim Hartmann in a June 2007 written statement. "His background, experience, and technical knowledge will benefit the men and women of our Fire Department.”
SINCE THAT TIME, Thiel has worked to modernize the department. When City Council members considered the budget every year, he would press for equipment and personnel. Meanwhile, he oversaw key parts of the city's emergency response to the 2010 Snowmageddon and the 2011 earthquake in addition to the addition of a hazardous materials facility less than a mile away from Tucker Elementary School. Colleagues said he kept a cool head under pressure.
"Adam is very organized," said Rich Baier, director of the city's Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. "He has an extremely logical approach to complex problems."
Some of the changes have yet to take place, although Thiel says he feels comfortable that he has set the pieces into place so the department can become a modern service. That red light bulb is still atop the device at the West End fire station, although Thiel says he recently signed a contract for a modern station alerting system. And the city's capital-improvement program includes a complete replacement of every existing fire station except the historic one on Prince Street and the new one at Potomac Yard.
"This is a very sought after position in the U.S. fire service," said Thiel. "I think that the city manager will have a lot of very well qualified candidates for the position as well as folks who are currently working here now."