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Fire chief says farewell after 21 years at department

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Starting this week, the noxious smoke, wailing sirens and dispatcher voices that pour forth from an emergency scanner in a deluge of static, will no longer be a presence in the daily life of Devin Graham.

Roswell Fire Chief Devin Graham talks to reporters in this 2019 file photo. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

Following a 21-year career with the Roswell Fire Department — including the last six as its chief — Devin Graham will hang up his fire hat for good when he retires this Monday.

“I kind of felt like it was time,” Graham said, while seated behind the desk in his office at Fire Station One at 200 S. Richardson Ave. Just outside the open door of his office, fire personnel can be heard in the garage along with the crackle of a scanner.

Graham, the 40-year-old chief of the only non-volunteer fire department in Chaves County said he had been seriously considering retirement for about a year. And when months ago, the city began offering severance packages for city employees to retire, he said that sealed the deal for him.

“That was kind of the ‘OK, I will take this and go’,” Graham said.

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He will start out his retirement, he said, by spending time with his wife of 17 years, Priscilla, and their 2-year-old daughter.

As for his professional future, the man who has spent more than half his life with the department said it is unclear. However, he is confident he will land on his feet.

“I will find something; something will come along,” Graham said.

He has mixed feelings though about leaving the department he has worked at for more than half his life.

“I invested a lot of time and effort into my career, so it’s kind of bittersweet and I am kind of sad to be leaving, but I am also excited to start a new chapter in my life,” Graham said.

“I’ve done my time. I’ve climbed the ladder as far as I can; it’s someone else’s turn now,” he continued.

Firefighting dreams at an early age

In this 2015 file photo, Devin Graham is seen here after his promotion to fire chief after serving for seven months as interim fire chief following the retirement of Chief Chad Hamill in November 2014. (Submitted Photo)

Graham began his accent up that ladder as a young firefighter before advancing up the rungs to driver, then lieutenant, division chief of training and safety and deputy chief. When chief Chad Hamill retired in late 2014, Graham was made interim chief. Months later he would reach the top when he became fire chief on a permanent basis.

That desire to rise through the ranks is something Graham said is engrained within him.

“If you go into a job and you don’t want to promote, you don’t want to better yourself, you don’t want to be upwardly mobile — I don’t understand that,” he said.

The desire to be a firefighter is something that can be traced back to Graham’s childhood.

“Every little boy wants to be a fireman, you know? It’s kind of cliché, but there is some truth to that,” he said.

With his father a volunteer with the Sierra Fire Department, he would often visit the fire station, sparking an interest for him in that field.

For a time, Graham did consider going to college to major in biology and minor in criminal justice in the hopes of becoming a game warden.

However, upon graduation from Roswell High School in 1999, Graham decided to put off college. Needing a job, he joined the department.

“And I just kind of never looked back,” he said.

Challenges 

Graham’s career though, as that of most firefighters, is marked by moments of trial, sacrifice and a schedule that can sometimes be unpredictable.

Graham remembers how one Christmas Eve day that despite having the day off, he and nearly all other firefighters who were off duty had to go into work to fight a raging fire at a former beauty school on Virginia Avenue.

“That has happened many times in my career,” he said.

Firefighters are on the front lines of disaster, trying to beat back flames of raging fires or administer medical care that can save a life. There are also the lives not saved and the tragedy witnessed firsthand as it unfolds.

And sometimes those firefighters can also end up dying in the line of duty.

Graham vividly recalls one such episode in 2002, when he was a driver responding to an explosion and fire in the area of Washington Avenue and Redwood Street.

That night, a man had set fire to a house leading to an explosion.

When Graham and other crew arrived on the scene, they learned the man who set the fire sustained burns.

After the fire was put out, then-fire chief Luis Jones went to a neighboring house where residents were tending to the injured arsonist, who it was later found was armed with a gun.

The arsonist shot and killed the owner of the house, as well as an ambulance worker. He also shot and wounded Jones and a young boy before fatally shooting himself.

Jones would die 10 days later, but Graham, who was there that night, remembers how he and his colleagues worked to save each of the victims. He admits feeling rattled, but nonetheless having to do his job.

“When you are in our line of work and something like that happens, you have to push through and do what needs to be done,” he said.

For Graham, there is another department tragedy that hit the department and the community last year.

On June 5, several fire personnel were in a bunker preparing fireworks for the city’s annual Fourth of July celebration, when the structure exploded.

Jeff Stroble, a fire apparatus operator, and Robert Hoby Bonham, a firefighter, were severely injured in the blast. Several other personnel sustained injuries that were subsequently classified as minor.

For weeks, the condition of the two men captured the attention of not only the fire department, but of the wider Roswell community.

Though Bonham would return home, Stroble would die in July 2019 from his injuries.

Steering the department through that time, Graham said, was the biggest challenge of his career.

“It was a tough time, a difficult time for us as a department,” he said.

In the weeks and months that followed, Graham said there was a lot of communication and conversation with rank and file firefighters in the department, as they tried to navigate through the grieving process.

“That was such a negative time for us as a department, so we had to work hard to keep as positive an outlook as possible,” he said.

Whether or not he did good in helping lead the department through that time of hardship, is something that Graham said he will leave to others to decide.

Nonetheless, he said he tried his hardest to meet the challenge and is glad the department made its way through it.

Helping others

For all the hardship that comes with being a firefighter though, Graham said there are rewarding aspects to it, especially the ability to help others.

Whether it is providing emergency care to someone that can mean the difference between life or death, or helping rescue a person’s property, firefighters work to help those in distress.

Sometimes the recipients of that help will even show their gratitude, sometimes showing up unannounced at one of the department’s fire stations to do so.

“And that is pretty cool, that is pretty rewarding, because not all incidents have those kinds of outcomes,” Graham said.

But successes are almost always the work of the team as a whole and not one individual.

“We operate in three or four men crews, and so that is just the way we operate, we are a team,” he said.

Legacy

As fire chief, Graham is entrusted with overseeing and managing the city’s department and its dozens of personnel.

He said the department he is leaving is far different in some ways from the one he arrived at in the 1990s.

Back then, much of the department’s equipment, including some of the fire engines in its fleet were nearly 30 years old, he said.

As time has progressed, the department has been able to purchase the most modern equipment and do so more often.

Call volumes, he said, have also more than tripled since he started.

As for his own accomplishments of leading the department, Graham said one of those he is most proud of is improving the city’s Insurance Service Office ratings, which are used to rank the effectiveness of fire departments and can factor in to home owners’ insurance rates.

Cities are then ranked on a scale of one to 9 with one being the best and 9 the worst. Graham said he took part in efforts that led to the department moving from a three to a two.

When looking back at the course of his career with the department, Graham said he will do so fondly.

“It’s been a great career and it’s a great place to work. Got an opportunity to meet and work with some amazing people and do some interesting stuff that most people don’t get to do,” he said.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext, 301, or breakingnews@rdrnews.com.