Jack McElfish, Sandy Springs Fire Chief

To hear Jack McElfish tell it, he’ll soon be leaving the best job he can imagine.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s the coolest job. You’ll never make a million dollars, but you’ll never have as much satisfaction.”

McElfish, Sandy Springs’ first and, so far, only fire chief, plans to retire in October. When he retires, he said recently, he’ll have worked 51 years in fire services. He’s been chief of fire departments spread from Clayton County, Ga., to Wallingford, Conn. All together, he’s been a fire chief for 33 years.

It was his dream job. “Ever since I was little,” he said, “I’ve wanted to be in fire services.”

He started hanging around the firehouse in his home town in Maryland when he was a kid. At 16, he began classes in fire fighting. At 18, he joined the U.S. Air Force and trained in crash rescue. In his 20s, he went to work for the fire department in Montgomery County, Md. In his 30s, he said, he was the youngest fire chief in Connecticut.

He said working in fire and emergency services is about helping people get through crises.

“Our job is to get people through the worst 15 minutes of their lives,” he said. “They may have been through a house fire. They may have had a heart attack. We get them through the worst 15 minutes of their lives. They’ve probably never been through this. For us, it may be routine, but we have an opportunity to make a difference.”

Sandy Springs hired McElfish in July 2006 to set up the new city’s fire and rescue department. The department became fully operational on Dec. 29, 2006, the city said. It now has 90 full time and about 50 part-time employees, McElfish said. “We have sharp people,” he said.

The department has received awards such as the “Crown Community Award” by the American City and County magazine in recognition of the start-up, and the department’s innovative emergency medical services program, the city said. The department also received the “Heart Save Community Award” presented by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

McElfish, who’s 69, said after he retires, he plans to spend more time with his wife and daughter.

On Jan. 17, the city issued a press release announcing McElfish’s plans to retire. He said if it were left to him, he’d have just quietly disappeared. But since the announcement, he’s been hearing from old friends and co-workers.

On Jan. 21, McElfish was sitting in the City Council Chambers in City Hall before the council’s meeting, and a steady stream of city officials stopped by to congratulate him and wish him well.

“You’ve built a hell of a fire department,” City Councilman Tibby DeJulio told him. “When we met this guy, we gave him a blank piece of paper and he built the best fire department in the state with it. … I’m sorry to see you go, Jack. We’ve gotten to see you as a permanent fixture in this city.”