Volunteer Fire Chief Draws National Honors

The Gazette – Jim Seavey doesn’t practice what he preaches, but that may just be why he was recently named Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year by Fire Chief Magazine.

The chief of the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department makes a point to sit down with all new volunteers in a session he calls “Getting Real with the Fire Chief.” He tells them that volunteering with the fire department should be a fourth priority — following family, work or school, and, if they practice it, religion.

While this is what he tells the volunteers — some of them as young as 16, the minimum age to sign up — it’s a far cry from his own practice. He likens the time constraints of being a volunteer fire chief in an urban environment to that of someone in political office. And when coupled with his work as a career firefighter in Washington, D.C. and his 30-mile commute from his home in Frederick County, the time away from his wife and son has taken its toll, he said.

“When you add up those hours, there’s barely enough time to sleep,” Seavey said.

Nonetheless, friends and colleagues say it’s his deep-rooted commitment to volunteerism that’s acted as a guiding force for the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department, which serves the Bethesda and Potomac communities. The department encompasses about 75 active volunteer firefighters with an additional 50 career firefighters assigned to it by Montgomery County, he said. Cabin John Park is well-known for its swift-water rescue teams, which came in handy last Dec. 23 when a 66-inch water main burst and stranded motorists in their cars just down River Road.

“He strongly believes in volunteerism and how important a role that that is in our community,” said Mike Harding, a fire department board member. “Not, of course, to take anything at all from career firefighters, but there is definitely a place and probably always will be a place for volunteers in the fire service, especially here in Montgomery County.”

Since he was a young boy, Seavey said he was fascinated with the fire service — he first recalls announcing to his nursery school teacher that he would be a firefighter at a visit to a firehouse in Washington’s Tenleytown neighborhood. “I saw that firemen come down the pole, and I was just awestruck,” he said.

Growing up in Glen Echo and attending Walt Whitman High School, Seavey was determined to become a firefighter. At the time, however, it was a difficult task for those with no family in the service, he said. Nonetheless, at age 16, he was accepted to the Glen Echo Volunteer Fire Department.

As a teenager, he said, “I wasn’t a full-fledged juvenile delinquent, but I was in the partying crowd.” As a fire volunteer, he said, it took all of one day for him to straighten up.

In 1979, he began work as a part-time firefighter at Cabin John Station 30 on Falls Road — his salary was $2.10 an hour. He rose through the ranks and by 1991, he was elected fire chief. In 1986, he was hired by the District of Columbia Fire Department, where he is now a lieutenant at Engine 17.

Seavey was recently honored for leading the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department through times of crisis — including the River Road water main break and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon. He’s also fostered a relationship with a fire department outside Hamburg, Germany that’s allowed for exchanges between fire services in the two countries.

But Seavey also hopes to inspire the next generation of firefighters. He’s a staunch advocate for the fire service as an opportunity for youth who are more inclined to vocational, hands-on careers. “They need to have opportunities as well, or else they become lost,” Seavey said.

His own son, Jimmy Jr., has followed in Seavey’s footsteps as a volunteer firefighter and was also recently hired as a Washington firefighter. And Seavey often acts as a father figure to the young, eager volunteers at Cabin John.

“He’s kind of like a mentor to me,” said Teddy Tamulevich, an 18-year-old Cabin John volunteer from Bethesda. Tamulevich, who lives near the station, said he grew up seeing the fire trucks drive past. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do my entire life,” he said.

Seavey says he sees a bit of himself in volunteers like Tamulevich. The excitement about the fire service he experienced as a child, he said, hasn’t yet waned. “Every day I get up and I want to run to the fire house like it’s my first day,” he said. “It’s still every bit as vivid and exciting as it’s always been.”

As posted in the Gazette: