Alexandria, Va – Corey Smedley has a personal mantra that he lives by, and it’s “faith, family, fire,’ and in that order. For the last six months, Smedley has been the acting Fire Chief of the Alexandria Fire Department, and on Dec. 17 he announced the good news that the national search for a permanent chief was over, and he’d gotten the job.
The 48-year-old has been battling blazes and working in fire departments for the past 25 years, and now has the distinction of being the city’s first African American fire chief.
“This is a great organization with a strong foundation. So, it’s not as if you come in and you have to build it from the ground up,” Smedley said. “That’s the first thing you recognize – you’re not going to save the world by yourself. And don’t try. You have a team. Some of those team members work very well, and are very competent. Some of them need some assistance and development, but you set a foundation to provide additional assistance, but you also clarify what your mission is and you stay on that mission.”
Smedley, who was born in Washington D.C., and raised in Maryland, currently lives in Chesapeake Beach, Md., which is a 38 mile drive from door to door. He usually spends about an hour and a half a day in traffic. He joined the department in 2015 as the Deputy Fire Chief of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, after 20 years with the Prince George’s County Fire Department. Smedley was promoted to Assistant Fire Chief of Administration in January, and was named the acting fire chief in June after then-Chief Robert Dube’ unexpectedly announced his resignation.
“The role of chief was definitely a new position for me. And with every new position there’s a learning curve. I can say now that I know the organization even better,” Smedley said. “The way I approach the fire service is really simple for me, and it is in this order: faith, family, fire.”
Smedley was in church the day before Dube’ called him and told him of his retirement. It was soon after that the City Manager’s office called and asked if Smedley would act in Dube’s place.
“The sermon that day was on the courage to climb. It was a lesson on understanding that there’s opportunity, and don’t be afraid to have faith and to step out and climb higher. If you have faith then God will guide your steps,” Smedley said. “You need to have your faith that he wouldn’t put you in a situation if he didn’t want you to succeed. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to do work and put in the time and energy.”
Smedley isn’t the first member of his family to be a firefighter. His older sister, Andrea, joined the Prince George’s County Fire Department five years before him, and they served together for six years until her retirement. He also served in the U.S. Army Reserve for eight years, and received a degree in communications from the University of the District of Columbia and a Master’s in organizational management from Johns Hopkins University. He would become Deputy Fire Chief in PG County before moving over to Alexandria.
City Manager Mark Jinks said that Smedley has comprehensive experience.
“His leadership both within the Fire Department and with our community and regional partners shows he has the necessary qualities and experience to lead our Fire Department into the next decade,” Jinks said.
Smedley was handed a crisis shortly after starting work in Alexandria. Snowstorm Jonas rolled in and he had to work with the City Manager’s office to coordinate an appropriate response.
“It’s more than jut plowing the roads,” Smedley said. “Schools are out, we know that a great percentage of our student populations are on free and reduced meals, so how are they going to eat? You have to know how to get critical things up and running. How do you respond to calls for service, critical infrastructures, power outages, and also normal things that have to be up and running. How do you work with your government aid at the federal and state level? How do you work with nonprofits and those vulnerable populations that may not have the ability to manage that space for long periods of time? All these things take a lot of coordination, and I knew about five people when this storm happened.”
Smedley, who is married with three children, says that his is candid with his leadership.
“I trust but verify. I hold people accountable. And I allow people to understand it’s okay to make a mistake that that environment to grow, inherently mistakes will be made,” he said. “The great news is the majority of the time you’re not in an emergency state. So, don’t act like it. Quite often in an emergency state you have limited information, and you have a small window of opportunity. In a non-emergency state you can get more information and you have time. So, don’t act in the non-emergency state, like you would in an emergency state. And quite often you find people in your organization who try to push you into a limited-information quick decision, and you can’t allow that to happen.”
The new chief is now working with the city manager’s office on a number of budget issues. He recently submitted a budget proposal to the city manager, and said that he is working to improve the pay for Alexandria’s first responders, which is among the lowest in the region.
“This is a great way to spend my life, and I have some really talented people working within the city of Alexandria Fire Department,” Smedley said.