Johnnie Phelps’ office at Anniston Fire Station No. 3 is filled with photos of his family, including his 9-year-old son, who helps fuel his decisions in the field.
“The calls that involve kids are the most intense and make you really shaky,” said the 18-year veteran of the profession. “I always imagine my son in the place of those kids, and that can be scary.”
As Anniston’s fire training officer, Phelps knows most of the firefighters in the department and has trained them at the fire training center, an extension of the Alabama Fire College.
A fresh group of trainees completed their first week of recruit school this week with Phelps' oversight.
His colleagues say Phelps makes trainees realize and overcome fears they never knew they had. He pushes recruits to their limits to prepare them for the field.
Phelps said his job is more than responding to calls, especially now that he focuses his energy on training the next generation of firefighters.
“My best days on this job are graduation days for recruit school,” he said. “I have so much pride in what they’re doing, and they know that the bond they have with the department will last a lifetime.”
Recruits are required to go through a series of mazes and training exercises, which causes many of them to drop out, Phelps said.
“He shows you what you can overcome by psyching you out,” said Seth Bombard, who trained with Phelps three years ago. “He is really good about presenting what he expects of you and then builds you up to get you there and assuring you that you can get through it.”
Phelps said he has to be tough during the first few weeks of training to make sure the recruits learn the discipline they need to enter people’s homes and not disrupt the department’s relationship with the community.
“Beyond the basics, we talk a whole lot about character,” he said. “It’s all about the little things, even as small as walking past trash on the sidewalk. You’ve got to be the person that bends over and picks up the trash.”
Josh Kitchens, a firefighter who has worked with Phelps for 13 years, said his commitment to the department started before his promotion to training officer.
“He has always had a resilience and dedication to the department, even as a line guy,” Kitchens said. “Even though this job only requires 40 hours a week, there’s no telling how many hours he works.”
Captain Craig Hall said Phelps never hesitates to fill in on shift work when people need to be off, a trait he said is not the norm for people in Phelps’ position.
“He was running an engine company during the Jacksonville tornado when he could have easily been facilitating things from the office,” Hall said. “He never fails to go above and beyond, especially because he doesn’t really have time to do the things that keep his skills polished, but he finds time.”
Phelps said making a positive impact on the community is the most important part of his job.
“I have picked up dead birds during the bird flu, gotten kittens out of trees and even helped get an eagle off the roof at DHR,” he said. “We just want to focus on helping make this a positive community.”