As interim Fire Chief JoAnne Rice steps away from Gainesville Fire Rescue (GFR) after 30 years with the department, she’s looking forward to things that many retirees enjoy: a stint at the beach in her RV, some golf lessons, more time with her family.
But she’s also looking forward to something she hasn’t gotten in quite a while: long stretches of uninterrupted sleep. Even though she is past the point in her career where she was taking shifts in a firehouse, Rice’s many leadership positions have meant she hasn’t really gotten an off day from the stress or the worry or the 2 a.m. fire calls.
“You are worried about your firefighters’ safety,” Rice said in a telephone interview. “You’re worried about the city commission. Worried about what you’ve got to do Monday, so you wake up in the middle of the night and have to think through something.”
Today was the first day that those concerns and the early morning calls are all someone else’s to deal with. Rice, who postponed her retirement and took over as interim chief in September, now has handed her responsibilities to another interim – Stephen Hesson, Gainesville’s fire marshal and an assistant chief – who will manage the department until the new permanent fire chief arrives in March.
“I’m looking forward to just enjoying whatever moment I’m in and not having to worry that my phone is going to go off, that something is happening, that I have to look at the computer or listen to the radio,” Rice said. “It’s a double-edged sword. I’ll miss that because I’ve been doing it for so long. But also I think I am going to get some really good nights’ sleep for a while.”
While the rest and some time to unplug is well-earned, Rice has charted a career that suggests she won’t be stationary for long.
“As I have grown in my job, I have become more confident, which in turn makes you grow more in your job and makes you more willing to step up to those challenges and not turn away,” Rice said.
As a young firefighter, Rice got involved in GFR’s hazardous materials team and was an early member of the fire department’s technical rescue team, which focuses on situations that require specialized rescue operations such as ropes rescues, confined space rescue and structural collapse search and rescue.
She also was among the first people from GFR to become a SWAT team medic, working with the Gainesville Police Department and later with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. In 1999, she became first woman to pass the ASO’s SWAT team obstacle course and become a member of their team. And it wasn’t her last “first” for the department.
Indeed, GFR’s track recording in hiring, developing and promoting both women and minorities was one of the aspects that drew Rice to the department originally.
“Gainesville has a very rich history of diversity,” Rice said. “We were hiring women and minorities when a lot of other departments were not.”
While she wasn’t Gainesville’s first female firefighter or lieutenant or district chief, as Rice rose in rank she began setting some important milestones herself. She was the first woman to serve as an assistant fire chief and as deputy fire chief. And when she took over on an interim basis after former Fire Chief Jeffery Lane retired, she became the first woman to lead the department.
“I hope it was just a benefit that I was female,” Rice said. “I was proud to have the opportunities in this department to continue to excel and grow. I competed well in the processes and was chosen in those ranks. That’s what Gainesville allowed: ‘Hey, let’s put us all on the same playing field.’”
As she finishes her career with Gainesville, Rice says will miss the people she worked with, the camaraderie they built through shared experiences and the feeling of fulfillment she has gotten in serving the community.
“Most of the satisfaction that you get out of the job is the small things you get to do to help people,” she said. “It’s not that you pull a baby out of a burning fire. It’s the day to day. It’s the compassion you can show on that one call to someone whose mother just passed away.”
Helping others has not just been a feature of her career, but a focus of the department that she has worked for and led.
“I think what we’ve started seeing in the fire service—what I have seen over my 30 years— is that we’ve become more outwardly focused, community focused,” Rice said. “I think it has truly changed into the public service it's supposed to be, in Gainesville for sure.”
While Rice may be finished with her time at GFR, her retirement looks to be short-lived. After maybe a six-month break and chance to unwind, she said she will be ready for her next challenge: possibly returning as a fire chief elsewhere or taking on consulting work.
“I have no qualms about getting back in the ring. I feel like I am at a peak in my career. I have all this knowledge and ability and skills that are pretty unique to the fire service, and I’m just not ready to be done with that,” she said.