Veteran fire chiefs who ‘made department better’ heading into retirement

single-meta-cal December 26, 2017

One was a self-confessed “late bloomer,” arriving on a delayed, circuitous route. The other knew in an instant this would be his career.

One has a roadmap in front of him. The other has an open book.

Two fire chiefs, both bringing their careers to an end with Huntsville Fire and Rescue at year’s end.

They have a work ethic that is unparalleled and a dedication to making the department better.”

Deputy Chief David McComb, 54, (left in the photo above), and Special Operations Chief Steve Britton, 61, (right in the photo above) with a combined 60-plus years of service, are retiring from their positions.

“Both came through the ranks, from firefighter to driver to captain to chief officer,” says Huntsville Fire & Rescue Chief Howard McFarlen. “They both brought so much expertise. They have a work ethic that is unparalleled and a dedication to making the department better.”

There is no announcement on their replacements; however, a new “rookie class” for incoming firefighters begins in earnest in January, recognizing the need for the City to be prepared for continued growth and the inevitable attrition (and promotions) within the department.

McComb needed second chance

David McComb came out of the Marine Corps and went to work as a government contractor. He fretted over the instability there, so when a brother-in-law suggested he apply to become a firefighter, he did so. And he didn’t make the cut.

Michael Jordan washed out on his junior-high basketball team – and one of the highest-ranking men in the department needed two tries to become a firefighter. Isn’t life funny sometimes?

McComb joined Huntsville Fire & Rescue in 1992, going onto the hazmat team after rookie school, then becoming a driver. He was promoted to captain in 2000, then district chief.

“He is brilliant at so many things,” McFarlen says.  “He is so laid back, still with a lot of movement. He gets stuff done, he checks to make sure it’s 100 percent right. He has a plan on how to get it done and he works his plan. Everybody loves him to death. He’s got a demeanor and personality that people follow. He was the first promotion I made (when) taking over as chief and it was like the whole department gave a sigh and said, ‘We got the right guy.’”

McComb, who has a son Spencer and daughter Hannah with wife Laura, a teacher in the Madison County School System, will be going into private business, as Ground Safety Coordinator for Science and Engineering Systems (SES).

“It was an honor and a pleasure to be able to have this job and I’ll never forget all the friends and relationships that I’ve had with all the people I’ve worked with,” McComb says. “If there’s anything I’ll miss about the job, it’s the people. We’ve got some really, really good guys.”

Britton instantly knew career path

Steve Britton and a fellow firefighter were the first inside a home at a fire scene. Everywhere they turned, “we found a bunch of money scattered around the house,” he recalls. “We didn’t know what to do.”

It was a rare moment – not merely for the money – that Britton had a bit of uncertainty.

He had been co-op’ing with an electrical company and was working as an EMT at age 18 when a friend called, encouraging him to try out as a volunteer firefighter in Hazel Green.

“From that day on, I knew this was what I wanted to do,” Britton says.

He joined Huntsville Fire and Rescue in 1981, then became a driver in 1984. He was promoted to captain in 1990 and eventually a division chief. Britton took over leadership of special operations in 2009, overseeing hazmat and heavy rescue, among other divisions. He also works closely in that role with other entities, whether with EMS in disaster relief to being among the team to prepare for a presidential visit.

“He brings so much common sense and a get-‘er done attitude,” McFarlen says. “He sees the big picture and sees what we need to be doing and is always looking further down the road.”

But his own personal road, not so much.

His retirement will enable him to spend more time with his wife of 40 years, Pam, and their basset hound, Bo. But he admits “it’s kinda scary and (I’m) apprehensive.

“I tell people it’s another chapter in my book. But that next page is blank,” Britton says. “Chief McFarlen said he’d buy me a box of 64 Crayolas if I wanted to color the page.”

One thing is for sure. Huntsville Fire & Rescue will miss these two dedicated public servants.