Retiring Fire Chief Jack McElfish knows your name when he first meets you. At least that’s what Chief Ronny Thomas says.
“There were over 600 firefighters in Gwinnett, and on Day One, when he walked in the door, he knew the guys by name,” Thomas said. “I don’t know how he did that.”
Thomas, who had 30 years of experience as a firefighter, including 17 years as a battalion chief in the Norcross area, said he followed McElfish to Sandy Springs because he wanted to work with a kind man.
“He’s the reason I work for Sandy Springs,” Thomas said, describing McElfish as a man with a big heart. “It’s rare to have a chief officer who hugs me and tells me he loves me every day I go in.”
After 51 years in fire services, McElfish walks away this October from the career he starting building at 8 years old.
“I think every kid wanted to be a fireman and I just haven’t grown up yet,” McElfish said.
He said he started hanging around the firehouse in his hometown in Maryland at about age 8, and by age 16 he started taking classes in basic fire safety and first aid training.
When he turned 18, he joined the U.S. Air Force. “I was lucky enough to get into aircraft fire and rescue, and then when I got out, when I was 20, I started as a career firefighter in the local fire department,” McElfish said.
McElfish earned the title of youngest fire chief in Connecticut when he was in his 30s, he said.
McElfish said he understood the importance of having a college education and surrounding himself with intelligent people. He’s earned two master’s degrees. He jokes he was on the 21-year night school program.
Another key to his success as a fire chief was moving around to different municipalities, he said, adding that he was hired from the outside in every location, brought in to fix problems in a department, and provide fresh programming ideas.
When John McDonough, Sandy Springs city manager, appointed McElfish, he said he was proud to have such a capable leader to build the fire department.
“Jack McElfish is an innovator with a proven history of providing outstanding fire and life safety services to the communities he has served,” McDonough said.
As a leader, McElfish did more than just inspire those who work in the department. He actually built the department from scratch, McDonough said. “I had 152 days to start the whole fire department,” McElfish said.
His role in the beginning involved everything from writing the standard operating procedures and uniform specifications to purchasing all the equipment—from toilet paper to fire trucks—and assessing and running medical and background checks for the hiring of 86 firefighters, he said.
After his seven years with the Sandy Springs department, McElfish says he’s most proud of how well respected the department is among residents and elected officials. The team’s training comes through in the level of customer service and professionalism brought to the EMS and first responder programs, he said.
Sandy Springs’ first mayor, Eva Galambos, said McElfish set high goals for the department and saw to it that those goals were implemented.
“He made sure the department implemented every known move to get heart attack victims to the hospital as fast as possible, as well as obtaining the very latest equipment to help EMTs in these situations,” Galambos said. “We welcomed visits to city hall by numerous cardiac arrest victims who were saved by our fire department’s rapid and professional response.”
McElfish said he takes pride when first responders go above and beyond to stay and care. He describes a team of officials who responded to a call where a man had a heart attack and died. The first responders stayed with the woman an extra hour and a half, making coffee and just waiting with her until her child arrived home.
“These are things that aren’t in a job description,” McElfish said proudly.
Sally Wyeth, a past president of the Sandy Springs Rotary Club, said McElfish inspires the love of the people who work for and with him because he treats their families like his family.
“It’s never about the chief,” Wyeth said. “Always about the staff, EMS. He’s very selfless.”
Another member of the Rotary Club, Fran Farias, agreed McElfish’s level of love and respect he has for those he encounters is rare in public service.
“He’s my favorite guy, and is so well respected by members of our Rotary club, the community and his fire team,” Farias said. “Sandy Springs has had an incredible public servant and he will be missed tremendously.”