Firefighter, union president retires
by Aaron Organ, Fort Wayne News-Sentinel
Jim Ridley has seen a lot in 29 years as a Fort Wayne firefighter. He’s saved countless lives and doused far too many fires.
In the 11 years he’s been president of the firefighters’ union, Local 124, Ridley has extinguished probably a comparable amount of fires, and accomplished success upon success for the benefit of his colleagues.
Ridley, 52, is now stepping down. But he’s not out.
The International Association of Fire Fighters announced this week that Ridley has been named director of its Hazardous Materials and Weapons of Mass Destruction Training Department.
Ridley will be in charge of 102 instructors throughout the United States and Canada, as well as the 11 staff members at his new headquarters in Washington, D.C. His duties will include writing and overseeing the requests of funds through the association, and making sure the requests are met through grant sources that will keep the program running and the training fluid.
Ridley actually started in the role Oct. 13. He replaces former president Elizabeth M. Harman.
“It’s a little different, but at the same time these instructors are providing a tangible service in the first line of defense through hazardous materials and weapons of mass destruction,” said Ridley, speaking with The News-Sentinel from his D.C. office. “The 11 people here at headquarters are making sure that that product is the right product, and the information is correct.”
The role is something Ridley said he became qualified for through a career as a firefighter and a side role as a union head.
“It’s in the DNA of firefighters to instinctively help others before helping themselves,” Ridley said. “We’re the guys that are running in when everyone else is running out. This is an expanded role of the ability to do that.”
Today, Ridley will celebrate at his retirement party with the extended family he’s grown with, which contains several members of his biological family.
Four of Ridley’s nephews are current Fort Wayne firefighters – Anthony Ridley, Geneori Hogan, Marcus Ridley and Kyle Hill. They are following not only in Ridley’s footsteps, but also in the looming shadow of Ridley’s older brother, Richard Ridley Jr., who was the first African American hired by the fire department in 1961.
Richard Ridley was Jim Ridley’s training officer when the younger man went through the academy in 1980, a year that also saw history made when the first two women were hired as combat firefighters. The equal opportunity leap was one of the crowning moments Ridley listed as he looked back on his career.
The other was Tim Davie being named chief in 2000, making him the first black chief in the Fort Wayne Fire Department.
Ridley has seen the fire department grow into a brotherhood all firefighters speak of today.
“I’ve seen the progression of our department, where Fort Wayne is now one of the best-equipped and safest fire departments in the nation,” said Ridley.
In the union, Ridley has overseen the purchase and renovation of the old Fire Station No.5 on Broadway, the passage of the firefighter merit ordinance – to decide in-house issues such as promotions that had been one of the Board of Public Safety jobs – and ushered in the ability for firefighters to secure the Earned Retirement health benefit.
He’s watched firefighters’ wages grow, and while he admits firefighters “could always stand to make more,” Ridley flaunts the healthy labor and management relationship he’s helped build.
Ridley said he’ll remember most the camaraderie, the professional friendships and the emergency and non-emergency experiences that he’s had through his nearly three-decade career. “It literally feels like just yesterday I was sitting in the academy class in 1980,” he said. “It went fast. Very, very fast.”
So more than just a retirement, this is really just a new chapter in Ridley’s professional life – a life he’s dedicated to helping others. With the IAFF, that will continue.
“It’s really bittersweet,” Ridley said. “It’s not often you have an opportunity to retire from a job you love and pick up in another career that you love as well.”