Faith enhances Leadership… and Life
by Lisa Tramontana • photos provided by Baton Rouge Fire Department
Leading the Baton Rouge Fire Department is by no means an “easy” job. But for Fire Chief Ed Smith, who has held the position since 2002, faith certainly makes it easier.
The BRFD is comprised of 19 fire stations, more than 600 employees, and services that go far beyond firefighting to include motor vehicle rescues, arson investigation, firefighter training, hazardous materials response, community outreach, and more. As Chief, Smith is expected to manage all of these moving parts at the same time, while keeping a very important promise --- to keep the community safe. It’s a heavy responsibility and he takes it seriously.
“My faith reminds me daily that it’s not what I do, but what I allow God to do in my life,” he said. “Almost every day there is a decision that has to be made that affects someone’s life or career … it’s a comfort to know I can pray and seek His guidance in making these decisions.”
Firefighting is a dangerous job. According to statistics from the National Fire Protection Association, 1.3 million fires were reported in the U.S. in 2016, resulting in more than 3,000 civilian fire deaths, more than 15,000 civilian fire injuries, and 69 firefighter deaths.
The NFPA also states that in the U.S., a fire department responds to a fire every 23 seconds, usually for accidents resulting from cooking, candles, smoking, electrical fires and heating elements.
“Over the past 40 years, I have seen so much death --- among infants and the elderly, rich and poor, strong and weak,”
Chief Smith said. “It makes it easy to understand that no one is promised tomorrow.” Chief Smith agrees that it would be a better world if we didn’t need firefighters. “We’d be happy if we never had to fight another fire,” he said. But since that’s not a reasonable wish, education is the next best solution. The BRFD sponsors a number of outreach programs, which create an effective way to connect with the community and promote safety.
Some of these programs include:
Fire safety – BRFD visits schools, churches and civic organizations to discuss safety topics, including prevention, fire extinguisher use, and escape plans.
Smoke trailer – A specially designed trailer reminds students to “stop, drop and roll” and teaches them to safely crawl out of a fire situation to avoid smoke inhalation.
Smoke detectors – BRFD partners with other community organizations to provide free smoke detectors to elderly and handicapped residents.
Poster competition – Students compete annually to design fire prevention posters, and winners are invited to a special recognition banquet and award ceremony.
Junior Fire Center program – Young offenders are identified, educated and mentored by BRFD staff on the dangers of arson. The non-confrontational program monitors them until age 18.
The Fire Department also works closely with the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, both of which help fire victims recover after a fire. These organizations provide temporary shelter, clothing and medications to fire victims.
Public service and the desire to help others has always been an important part of Chief Smith’s personality. “My faith reminds me daily to stay humble because without God in my life, I am nothing,” he said. “I try to pattern this model in my workplace because without the 610 hardworking, dedicated men and women of the Baton Rouge Fire Department, we would not be the best department in the nation.”
His work has made his faith stronger, he says. A deacon at Zoar Baptist Church, he has taught Sunday school for 25 years to 7th and 8th grade boys. “Boys this age face a lot,” he said. “The temptations are not much different from decades ago --- sex, drugs, alcohol --- but exposure and access to these things is so much easiernow. The internet is a valuable tool in many ways, but look how it has made pornography so available, even to kids. It’s a real problem.”
Even so, Chief Smith is encouraged by how many of his Sunday school students have grown into strong Christian men over the years. “I’ve always told them that at some point, they will have to make their own decisions … they will find themselves in a situation where they need to ‘do the right thing.’ But they have to know what the right thing is. So it’s important that we, as adults, give them the guidance and support --- the tools --- to choose the right path.”
And that starts with the Bible, he added. “The Bible is a great blueprint for a successful life.”
Building a close family unit is another piece of the puzzle, said Chief Smith as he talked about his wife Trudy, their three children, Shelly, Edwin and Megan, and six grandchildren. “As a parent,
you prepare your family for the things they will have to face in life. You instill in them a love for God and teach them to lean on their Savior, Jesus Christ. And you have to understand that they may go through phases as far as their faith is concerned.”
As a community official and leader, Chief Smith has been asked often for his advice on how to promote unity, especially racial harmony, in Baton Rouge. After all, the community has faced a lot of division in the past year. The answer, he says, is really simple. “I feel that Mark 12 answers this question,” he said. “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than this.”
For information on firefighter training, or to schedule educational activities, such as station tours or education classes, call the Baton Rouge Fire Department Headquarters at (225) 354-1400.