“Do you remember your first fire?”
The question from a Free Times reporter takes Columbia Fire Department Chief Aubrey Jenkins back in time. Though he is sitting in his Laurel Street office on a hot August day, it’s a question that takes him back nearly 40 years. Normally genial to a fault, the chief’s mood darkens just a bit.
“Yes,” Jenkins says, quietly. “The first fire I ever went to, I remember it real well.”
He’d only been working for the fire department for a couple weeks, having been hired in February 1979. Working at the old Station 1, which was at Senate and Park streets, he’d been out on a few emergency calls in those early weeks, but hadn’t yet been out to a fully involved fire.
Then one evening, just as he was set to get off work, a call came in that there was a house fire in the Eau Claire area, out in North Columbia.
“So, I went out there,” Jenkins says. “I was new, you know? I was still trying to figure out what to do. The house actually burned to the ground. … It burned so quick. There was one person who was transported to the hospital. A young girl. So, as we begin to sift through the rubble, an officer called me over. He said, ‘Hey, come here, Jenkins.’ So, I walked over there and I saw an image. It was a burned body of a young girl that was burned really bad.
“When I saw that, it told me one thing: It told me that this job is real serious. It was the first time I ever saw a burned body. That told me that this is a serious business.”
It’s a business that has become his life.
A Columbia native — he grew up in the Saxon Homes housing projects near downtown — Jenkins, 59, has been with the Columbia Fire Department for 39 years. From his beginnings as a rank-and-file fireman — he says, when he was initially hired, his supervisors handed him a helmet, a coat, some pants and a pair of boots, then pointed at a fire truck and said, “You see that truck there? When that truck moves, you be on it” — he would work his way up through the ranks of the department.
In 2011, he reached the top of the heap: He was named the eighth fire chief — and the first African-American chief — in the history of the department, which was established in 1903.
It’s no small task.
Jenkins oversees a department that, through a joint agreement between the City of Columbia and Richland County, fights fires and responds to other emergencies, rescues and medical calls across a growing county. (There were 389,000 people living here when Jenkins became chief in 2011. The latest census estimates put the county population at about 409,000.) The department has 500 paid employees, including just over 450 firefighter positions, and another 100 volunteer firefighters. All in all, the Columbia Fire Department has 32 fire stations splayed across the county and a budget of about $44 million. The department is tasked with covering more than 770 square miles.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin points to the fire department’s Insurance Services Office (ISO) ratings as a marker for the achievements of Jenkins and his staff. The ISO measures departments on a number of metrics — how fast a department can get to a call, its ability to deliver water, how many people respond to a call, and more. The City of Columbia has a Class 1 ISO rating, the top rating in the business, and Richland County has a Class 2 rating, a solid mark that places it in the top two percent nationally.
“That’s representative of Chief Jenkins’ leadership and that of his command staff, and just the fact that we have some incredibly hard-working men and women at the Columbia Fire Department,” Benjamin told Free Times. “This is representative of their work and commitment to professionalism.”
Of course, there are always bumps in the road. A 2016 survey of firefighters, conducted by a consultant hired by City Manager Teresa Wilson, revealed unrest within the ranks at the department, including frustration with Jenkins and other command staff, and a feeling that communications between the rank-and-file employees and leadership at the department were broken. The survey spurred Jenkins to make changes in how he deals with his troops.
But, through it all, Jenkins’ public face has never wavered. He doesn’t carry himself like someone who sits atop a $44 million fire and rescue empire. If anything, the chief has always seemed like one of the guys. The word that pops up most often when you talk to other people about him is “genuine.”
And he’s a Columbia guy, born and bred. As Benjamin is quick to note, Jenkins “has a spirit about him that exudes ‘Columbia.’”
“He’s one of ours,” the mayor says.
Jenkins leaves no doubt that the Capital City is home.
“I was born and raised in the city of Columbia,” he says, in his easy manner. “I was raised up in Saxon Homes, which is in the Read Street area.”
He’s referring to the original Saxon Homes, the Columbia Housing Authority apartment complex that was built in 1952 and torn down in 2000.
Jenkins, who went to Eau Claire High School and Midlands Tech (where he actually studied criminal justice before a friend convinced him to give the fire department a try), is a legend around the Columbia Housing Authority: He was inducted into the authority’s Wall of Fame in 2012. The wall honors former housing authority residents who have gone on to success in life.
Gilbert Walker is the executive director of the Columbia Housing Authority. He says he has known Jenkins for more than two decades, and that the chief embodies ideals that public housing residents could aspire to.
“Chief Jenkins is actually a textbook role model,” Walker says. “He is the type of person I think that young people should look up to. … Any time we’ve asked him to participate in anything, he’s always been straightforward and will volunteer his time.
“Another thing I like about him is that he’s a churchgoing person. I’m not saying anybody has to go to church. But it certainly is something where I don’t think young people get that part of it, and they get themselves in a lot of trouble.”
Jenkins, who has been married for 30 years to wife Vernell and has two adult sons, is a longtime deacon at Progressive Church on Barhamville Road.
Walker’s comment on Jenkins’ willingness to give his time is telling. Several people Free Times talked to for this story said the chief’s penchant for showing up just about anywhere is a defining trait.
Jacob Eller is the president of the Columbia Firefighters Association, a union-like group that advocates for the firefighters at the Columbia Fire Department. Currently about 200 of the department’s paid firefighters are part of the association.
While he acknowledges, in a department with 500 employees and 100 volunteers, it can be tough for a chief to get to know everyone on a personal level, Eller says Jenkins does his best to make it happen. For instance, Eller notes that, when a firefighter is set to receive a pin for serving a significant number of years — five years, 10 years, etc. — Jenkins likes to present them personally.
“A lot of departments our size, they’ll kind of divvy those out through the battalion chiefs to give the pins to [the employees],” Eller says. “Chief Jenkins like to personally hand them out. Retirement plaques, promotional ceremonies, he’s there. Almost any major fire I’ve been to, I see him come, if it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon or 2 o’clock in the evening.
“If he’s in the area, he’ll come by a fire or a fire alarm. There’s not a call too insignificant to him if he’s in the area.”
Indeed, during a recent interview with Free Times in the chief’s office, the emergency radio scanner squawked softly in the background throughout the conversation; a novelty for the alt-weekly reporter, but a four-decade way of life for Jenkins.
“I always listen to it,” Jenkins says, in the manner someone might describe the most basic function, like breathing. “When I’m at home, I listen to it. The one thing you always want to keep in tune to is when your folks are out there doing stuff. I’ll show up at fires. I remember going to a fire one time, and this was a residence, and they said, ‘Wow, you actually showed up to my fire.’ I said, ‘Yes, I showed up because I care.’”
Despite Jenkins’ efforts to establish rapport with firefighters across the department, it hasn’t always come easy.
Those struggles came to light in a November 2016 story in The State from now-retired reporter Clif LeBlanc. According to the piece, Wilson, the city manager, commissioned a consultant to look into unrest at the fire department.
The resulting survey of a large swath of the department’s firefighters turned up a number of concerns, including complaints about pay, a lack of communication and trust between department leadership and the firefighters scattered at the houses throughout the county, and even complaints that Jenkins was a “figurehead” and that he “manages with his heart.”
According to The State’s piece at the time, Jenkins said the results shocked him.
Asked what he’s done since 2016 to address the unrest on display in the survey, Jenkins says he’s made a concerted effort to improve communication.
“Sometimes [issues] just don’t get to the level of the fire chief, and they should,” he says. “What I have done, in that realm, is put together the Fire Chief Advisory Team. It comprises of firefighters from every rank, but nobody above a captain rank. I want to hear from those folks. We meet once a month and we talk about the systemic issues that kind of plague the department. We come in and talk about those things, and we get a response out to the department.”
The chief also meets monthly with the firefighters association. Eller, the association’s president, says he has a direct line, of sorts, to Jenkins.
“Me and him have an understanding that I can call him at any given time,” Eller says. “That definitely makes things a lot better. Communication is a huge factor. Whether it’s the chief to the department or from me to my members, it’s always a challenge to make sure everybody knows what’s going on.”
Eller says he thinks dialogue between Jenkins and the firefighters on the ground has gotten better in the past two years, and that the information shared in firefighters’ monthly meetings with the chief has “drastically helped.”
As for Wilson, when recently asked about the 2016 survey and the struggles at the department at that time, she noted that, “in any department with over 400 employees, there will always be challenges and those challenges will vary.” She acknowledged that Jenkins has worked to improve dialogue and communication between himself and firefighters since that 2016 survey, that he has visited stations more often and that he will periodically provide department updates via video.
“As with most things, improving communications is an ongoing process,” Wilson says.
The city manager was quick to note Jenkins’ commitment to his job.
“He was able to start his fire service career in an entry level position and over the years he has risen to the level of fire chief,” she says. “Anyone who spends time talking to him about his job or his role with the city will definitely know that he loves the Columbia Fire Department and it is an important part of his personal story and his life.”
From Scriven’s Alley to Coca-Cola Legs
Jenkins has photographs on the wall in his office at city fire headquarters on Laurel Street. There’s one of him shaking hands with President Barack Obama. And another where he’s greeting Vice President Joe Biden. And there’s a mock Time magazine cover that features Jenkins’ face, with the headline “The Man Who Would Be King.”
But there’s one photo that stands out. It’s a picture of a burning building, with flames roaring out of the top of the structure. Upon closer inspection, you’ll see that it’s a photo of Scriven’s Alley, a restaurant that once stood at the southeast corner of Gervais and Huger streets.
According to an old newspaper ad, the spot was known for its “world famous charcoal and mesquite grill room.” But in the 1980s, the building burned, and the photo that hangs on Jenkins’ wall is a record of the incident.
Moreover, it serves as a reminder to Jenkins of just how fragile life can be. He was on the scene at the restaurant that day, and things almost went wrong.
“Yeah, that was Scriven’s Alley,” Jenkins says, looking at the photo. “I didn’t know [his fellow firefighters] had called a Code Red. Code Red means ‘Everybody get out.’ I’m in there fighting the fire and all of the sudden I just feel stuff start falling on top of me, because they were dumping water on top of the building. … That stuff was just falling on top of me and I had to crawl through a maze to get out.
“I keep that picture on my wall to remind me of what could have happened.”
Sit with Jenkins a while and stories about the old days will keep popping out. Like the time he responded to a fire at a chemical plant in the 1980s, and something in the chemicals caused a burning sensation on his legs. The only way he could get the burning to stop, he says, was to pour Coca-Cola on his legs.
Things are different in the fire service these days, he says. Equipment is safer, more technologically advanced. And the firefighter training now soars way beyond the learn-as-you-go-along, “here’s your gear, now hop on that truck” days of yesteryear. New recruits now go through 16 weeks of training before they start fighting fires.
The South Carolina State Association of Fire Chiefs, of which Jenkins is currently the second vice president, is often at the center of discussion when it comes to issues affecting the fire service across the state. For example, state association President Chris Smith, who is the fire chief in West Columbia, says there’s a training session coming up in October in which the chiefs statewide will discuss workplace issues such as diversity, ethics, trends in the millennial generation and more.
Smith says he has known Jenkins for years, and he returned to that oft-repeated word when describing the Columbia chief: genuine.
“I just don’t think you could find a better person,” Smith says. “We have a good working relationship, because we are across the river from each other. Our departments work together and train together. He and I have to work together through the chiefs’ association, and he has supported me in what I’m trying to do as I’m starting my year of presidency.
“I couldn’t ask for any more than Aubrey’s support.”
It is interesting that, in Jenkins’ long, freewheeling interview with Free Times, the word “retirement” never pops up, even though his 40th anniversary with the department is approaching.
Asked how long he plans to stay at it, Jenkins’ answer is typically low-key.
“I don’t know,” Jenkins says. “I’m going to do it as long as I enjoy it, and as long as the city will have me. I’ve got far less time ahead of me than I’ve got behind me. As long as I stay healthy and OK, I’ll stick around.”
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