District fire chief retires after 37 years of service

  • Published
  • By Wesley Farnsworth
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- For many people, the military is a way of life. In fact, only about 1% of the U.S. population serves in the armed forces and approximately .6% is hired to work as a Department of Defense civilian.

James Snyder, a district fire chief with the 788th Civil Engineer Squadron, has experienced both roles.

“I served for five years in the Air Force in the boiler plant here in Kittyhawk and separated as a buck sergeant,” he said. “Then I worked another 10 years there as a civilian before coming to work for the Fire Department.”

As Snyder retires Oct. 29 with 37 years of combined service, he cannot help but smile as he recalls the paradox: “I started by making fires; now, I put them out.”

The beginning

Snyder grew up in a big family with a military background.

“My dad retired from the Air Force as a master sergeant when I was only 2,” he said. “He started his service in the Army Air Corps and served in World War II, Korea and the start of Vietnam.”

When his father retired, the family was living in Oscoda, Michigan, where he worked at Wurtsmith Air Force Base, which at the time was part of Strategic Air Command, on B-52s and KC-135 aircraft. Snyder says he grew up with a sense of duty.

His mother was a stay-at-home mom raising him and his six sisters.

“It was kind of nice being the only boy in some ways,” he said. “I always had my own room, and I never got hand-me-downs.”

Snyder always enjoyed outdoor-related activities, including fishing, hunting and anything else out in the snow.

He graduated from Oscoda High School before attending Mid Michigan College. Realizing it was not quite right for him at that point in his life, he joined the Air Force and later earned his degree from Park University while on active duty.

Service at Wright-Patt

“When I enlisted, I didn’t put Wright-Patt on my dream sheet because I’m from Michigan,” Snyder said. “But I ended up here anyway.”

Snyder recalls his first time coming through the gates of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

“It was really weird … seeing a civilian cop checking ID cards,” he said. “The base where I’m from was a SAC base and that would have never happened. It was always a minimum of two uniformed guards and a military working dog at the gates when we would go there.”

After five years of military service, Snyder went to work for the Air Force as a civil servant in the same Kittyhawk-area boiler plant, where he remained for another 10 years.

Then, in 2003, the A-76 study took place, which was a “competition of government-operated activities and the private sector to determine whether commercial activities can be done more economically and efficiently by contract or an in-house workforce,” according to a National Institutes of Health Office of Management and Budget document.

After this study, his position was eliminated and he was transferred to the Fire Department on base.

“I had to go to the same 10-week school that all of the military guys go to in Texas in order to start this job,” Snyder said. “I was the oldest one … in my class at 35 years old. It was interesting, though, because you had all these service members there in their uniforms and here we are standing there in jeans and a Wright-Patt T-shirt.”

After completing training, Snyder began his Fire Department career in Station One on the ladder truck.

“I was selected for the ladder truck, which at the time was the truck that went out on all mutual-aid calls, so we were pretty busy,” he said. “It was nice being on the busiest truck because I was able to learn a lot, though the guys that had been here longer couldn’t figure out how I had landed that position having just arrived.”

After leaving Station One, he transferred to the fire station in Area B, where he again worked on a truck covering mutual-aid calls for Riverside. During this time, he was promoted to lieutenant and began to drive from time to time.

Snyder spent three years in Area B before moving back to Station One and the ladder truck. In 2008, he was promoted to captain.

Over the course of his career, he would bounce around between Area B, Station One and the firehouse on the west ramp on the 445th Airlift Wing side of WPAFB, but the ladder truck became his focal point and area of expertise.

“I’m now one of the few people who take firefighters out for their final drive on the ladder truck before signing them off,” he said. “I have actually developed my own course that takes them around the base and the city of Fairborn and puts them in different scenarios.

“For instance, anyone can hit a traffic cone, but when you put a vehicle there, the driver is a bit more careful. So I have them do exercises with actual vehicles instead of cones to see how they handle it.”

The next chapter

Unsure of what retirement holds, Snyder plans to just sit back and relax for a little bit with his wife and their seven kids, the youngest a freshman at Greenon High School in Springfield, and just “let the chips fall after that,” he said.

Jacob King, 788 CES fire chief, praised Snyder’s resiliency with the challenges he’s overcome in his Air Force career.

“Coming into the department with fire not being his first choice and then excelling during his time with the department — from working with being promoted to lieutenant, then captain and district chief — shows a lot about his character,” King said. “Each level required a specific skill set and educational piece and certification. His continuous drive allowed him to reach the level he is at and influence others and his fire station.

“His natural ability to bring people together to work as one team will be significantly missed by the department.”

Snyder says there is a difference between being certified and qualified at your job.

“Qualified means you took the required classes; certified means you’ve taken the time to implement the training and can perform the tasks well,” he said.

“Too often, people focus on ‘what’s next’ in their career instead of focusing on where they are at. Take the time to learn from those senior people you work with and get really good at what you’re doing now, and then focus on what’s next.”

He also offered some advice to those thinking about enlisting or becoming a civil servant.

“Figure out what your end goal is, then what you feel is the best way to get you there,” he said. “In today’s Air Force, jobs might require you to do positions at other bases than where you first started in order to find advancement. You have to figure out if this will be a job or a career and if you are willing to do what it takes to not only improve yourself but the Air Force as well.”