“It’s what I’ve studied my whole life, and what I do is mitigate an emergency, whatever that emergency is,” Dubé said.
By James Cullum
ALEXANDRIA, VA- Robert C. Dubé lives and breathes fire, so to speak. A third-generation firefighter, he literally grew up in a firehouse, and this June will mark the fifth year that he has been Alexandria’s fire chief. When he speaks it’s with a calm inside voice and you have to lean in to hear him. That relaxed, measured demeanor is something that has been acquired over a career that has spanned more than four decades. That’s right – for the last 42 years Dubé has tackled fires with the quiet determination of a man who knows he is going to beat his destructive and life-threatening adversary and keep his people safe in the process.
“My dad was like that, and I guess I emulate him in how he presented himself regardless of the situation,” Dubé told The Zebra. “You might be completely in turmoil inside, but you can’t, especially if you’re in command of a scene , you can’t act like that or it’s going to go to crap pretty quick, and everybody else is going to be like that. It’s innate, but it’s also somewhat learned. If you want to be effective you have to be able to internalize crises. When I get home, do I let that go? Sometimes, but not that often.”
Of immediate concern, Dubé says, is that Alexandria is home to the largest number of “un-sprinkled” high-rise buildings in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
“There are well over 100 high-rises that are un-sprinkled, and most of them in the West End, built before the code,” he said. “We have a significant challenge with those. In the last two years or so we’ve had a tremendous number of fires that have started on outside balconies by smoking or candles that transmit inside and up. We’ve probably had five of those in the city in the last two years, and even if it’s a sprinkled building it’s not sprinkled on the balcony.”
Dubé, 61, began his career as a Fairfax County firefighter when he was 19 years old. His dad, Bob Dubé, was one of the first career firemen in Fairfax County and was later the fire chief of the Loudoun County Fire Department, and his grandfather Walter Stanford was also a firefighter. Dubé’s grandparents lived right behind his father’s firehouse, and he would spend his free time hanging out with the firefighters. He’s also been around the world enough times to completely fill up his passport – as a member of the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue team. As a USAR trainer, he spoke at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, after responding to the Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks.
“It’s what I’ve studied my whole life, and what I do is mitigate an emergency, whatever that emergency is. The Fairfax County team, for instance, we went to natural disasters and emergencies around the world digging through collapsed buildings,” Dubé said. “When I get to a call I have about 25-30 people from various response units who all have pre-assigned things to do if it’s going as planned. My job is to understand where the fire is, where it’s going, how long has it been burning, what type of construction we’re dealing with, which tells me how long we will be able to be inside. You have to analyze all of those things, and a lot of it is from experience, but also from study and education and gut feelings. It’s all put together in one package. You have to be ready for unplanned events.”
As far as staffing and retention go, Mayor Justin Wilson recently included nine firefighter positions in his additions to the fiscal year 2020 budget, which will be approved by the city council this month. The new positions will allow the engines to carry the industry standard of four firefighters, since a staffing shortage recently reduced the number of personnel on trucks to three. At a recent fire on Pitt Street, in which an elderly woman was killed, there were only three Alexandria firefighters on each truck. Additionally, after the passage of the budget, Alexandria firefighters will now be working a 56-hour workweek for less pay than their regional competition – more than 15 percent lower, in fact.
“Salary and benefits is the sole discretion of the city manager’s office. We create budget proposals every year, and that’s operating budget as well as capital. We don’t do anything with compensation and benefits. We don’t put that in as part of our request, period. It’s just not the way it works,” Dubé said. “I’m not saying they don’t ask my opinion, and I freely offer it. But absolutely, we are behind.”
The recent fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was a tragedy that devastated people around the world. Dubé watched the blaze on television from his office.
“The tremendous amount of weight in that building, of the timbers and the construction, is a severe hazard to the people who were trying to put that fire out,” he said. “When it collapses it’s quick and without warning and you have no time to get out of the way. There was some criticism as to why they weren’t closer, but there’s no way in hell that I would get people anywhere near there. No way.”
Dubé said that the Alexandria firefighters who are being recognized at this year’s Public Safety Valor Awards are the department’s shining stars.
“I would guarantee you that if you asked each of them if what they did was over and above the call of duty, they’d tell you, ‘No, it’s part of the job. It’s what we do and why we come to work,’” he said. “But if you look at the citations, they clearly went above and beyond. They know what they had to do, and they got it done.”