RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond Chief of Fire and Emergency Services Melvin Carter wanted to become a firefighter for as long as he can remember. Carter started out as a volunteer and is now the third black chief in the department's history. But among his predecessors, there is one difference that only he can claim.
“I was born on July the Fourth, 1963," Carter said. "The Richmond Fire Department integrated on July 6, 1963, and so I was born two days before, and now I sit as the 21st fire chief.”
When Chief Carter was appointed to the role in 2017, he became the first and only native Richmonder to rise through the ranks within the department to fire chief in its history.
It is also the same department the man who grew up in the Newtowne West neighborhood is eternal grateful to. Not just for the job, but also for RFD saving his three younger siblings lives back in 1968.
“My two brothers and my sister almost died in a house fire on Bowe and Leigh Street, and so that also helped to reinforce why I wanted to be a firefighter," Carter recalled."But knowing what I know now as a fire professional I know it was a pretty significant and bad fire. And so, with all the turmoil that was going on in the sixties, as you might imagine in particular around 1968, the men and women of this organization saved my brothers and sisters.”
Carter joined Richmond Fire back in 1987, but for nearly the last four years now, he has been in charge of a staff of nearly 450 people. He says the jobs comes with its challenges, and the pandemic has not made things easier. But that has not stopped the chief from trying to instill a certain mindset with his staff.
“The greatest challenge has really been I think reinforcing the narrative for our firefighters to believe in themselves and what they do," he explained. "And that we are a phenomenal fire department and that we all exist. All of our position numbers exist to serve the citizens of Richmond.”
Carter is also in the process of trying to recruit through an intensive process the next generation of firefighters in a year where the department is expected to lose nearly two dozen members. A majority which he says are due to retirement.
“These jobs change lives for generations so we would really love just really do a really strong recruiting effort, but you have to be intentional," Carter said. "You have to want a diverse organization. I would love to see a class of all women. I would love to see that. That is a goal of mine.”
Being a firefighter is one of the toughest jobs in the world! Both physically, and perhaps even more so mentality. For the lives you save, and the lives that have been lost.
“The things that continue to use that you continue to relive over and over in your mind," he said as his eyes watered. "Oh man, just sobering. The breath of the position and what you’re exposed to and what you’re involved in.”
But it is a job Chief Carter says he has loved every day spanning five different decades and says he is even luckier to do it in his hometown.
“To do what you love to do, and to get compensated for it. And to do it where you grew up in, I think outside of loving your family and being blessed is probably the greatest experience and love I can ever have,” Carter said.
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