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When 52-year-old Bryant Fire Chief Randy Cox, who plans to retire on May 25 due mainly to health concerns, was 12-years old he climbed up a tree with the ambition of saving a cat when the local fire department wouldn't respond.
"I thought I was smart enough to get it out, but I went up too far, got scared and couldn't get down," he said with a laugh. "The fire department ended up coming out to get me down. And as they got me down, they also got the cat."
Cox added, "When we first purchased a ladder truck here in Bryant, we did go rescue a cat out of a tree one time just to say that we did it. We did it at Mills Park and it was successful. The cat about clawed me to death, but we got it down."
The chief has stockpiled a lot of funny stories through his 33-year career as a firefighter. Cox also has a story about how he convinced his wife of 32-years, Terri, to date him in the first place. He also has a few tragic stories, many that he won't share. But the one constant thing he loves to tell is how important the firefighters that have come before him, those that serve alongside him, and those he mentors — even those that he never met — are to him.
Cox will also often profess his love for the community. He said there are no plans to ever leave. "I love Bryant. Even though I wasn't born here, this is my home," he said. "This is where my kids and grandkids live. I have no plans of leaving."
Becoming a firefighter was innate
Growing up as the son of a firefighter in various towns in Ohio, Cox said it was inevitable what his career decision would be. From spending time with his dad Chief George Cox in a fire station, and playing in the front yard with other firefighter's children, his love for the fire service began very early in life.
"I think I was born and raised with that desire," Cox said. "I've spent my entire life inside a fire station. I mean I was there all the time."
He added, "My mom, Dorothy, told me that I was always playing in the yard with toy trucks and I would break the backs off the dump trucks and put little 9-volt batteries on them to make them look like fire tankers. I do remember that I used to make the sounds of a fire engine siren, and I would get so loud that cars would start pulling over on the side of the road."
After George Cox retired as fire chief in Owensville, Ohio, he began to work for Procter and Gamble. Randy Cox said his dad continued to work as a volunteer firefighter and even helped set up a few small volunteer fire departments in Ohio. In fact, he said it wasn't until recently, at the age of 87, that George Cox finally decided to retire from both P&G and as a volunteer firefighter.
"My whole family has always been the public servant type, even my uncles and aunts," Cox said. "I got the bug (to help his community) early too."
At the age of 15, Cox wasn't eligible to be certified as a firefighter, but none-the-less, he said the instructors of a fire academy was "impressed enough that they let me go through the entire course." In 1978, he finally got a certification in trade and industrial service, but life would take him in a different direction.
"When I got married, I got to a point where I needed to decide if I was going to take the fire services as a main career or do something else," Cox said. "Obviously money was a big issue back then, so I started work for Wells Fargo Armored Car Service. I ended up working for them for 20 years and actually retired with them."
He had a good career with Wells Fargo, even being promoted as a branch manager. All the while though, Cox continued updating his education and training in the fire service. He also served as a volunteer firefighter, and at one point he was hired as part-time firefighter too.
"I just could never let that go (being a firefighter)," Cox said. "I got an opportunity to take a promotion (at Wells Fargo) and move to Arkansas. I never thought that I would live in Arkansas being from the north, but I came for the interview and to look at the operations for Well's Fargo. My wife and I had a young son and we wanted to decide where he should go to school. That's when I found out about Bryant. We fell in love and it's history from there."
He added, "It was the hometown feel of the community and the Bryant School District. I never thought we would live here as long as we have, but I consider this home now, not Cincinnati (where he was born)."
However, Cox first worked as a volunteer firefighter for the Springhill Fire Department. Eventually he became a volunteer firefighter for Bryant.
"Later (the City of Bryant) decided they wanted to hire a full-time fire chief and I thought 'Man what an opportunity. I'm retiring from (Well's Fargo) and I could start a second career. And here I am today," Cox said.
Meeting his best friend
After he graduated from Northeastern High School in 1977, the school decided to hire Cox as drum instructor for the drum and bugle corp. Across the city limits, at Milford High School, there was also a member of a drum and bugle corp. Terri was on the flag line of the color guard. The 18-year-old Cox instantly fell in love, but Terri — not so much.
"For awhile she didn't want anything to do with me. So I sent her a dozen Yellow roses every Friday for 9 months," Cox said. "Her mom was in love with me from day one, but when I started sending the roses, at least the first three weeks, (Terri) was throwing them in the trash can. Her mom though would get them out, put them in a vase and set them in the kitchen. I spent a lot of money on flowers."
The ambitious Cox finally wooed, or at least convinced, Terri to go on dates. Not long after, Cox got ambitious again.
"I put a big painted sign in her yard asking her to marry me. I was just a kid head over heels in love with a girl. When she woke up that morning she called me and said, 'Are you (dumb) or what?'" He recalled with a laugh. "It took a long time just to get her to date me, but it definitely worked out. We got married on June 14, 1980 and today she's still my best friend."
He added, "Anytime we have an anniversary or I'm in the doghouse, I always make sure I send her yellow roses."
Randy and Terri Cox also raised two children, Josh and Mindy. Both would become graduates of Bryant High School. Today, Mindy works for the City of Bryant as a water meter reader and has a daughter named Lilly. Josh has a daughter McKenzie with his wife Cassie. He also followed in his father and grandfather's footsteps as he becomes the third generation firefighter, serving for the North Little Rock Fire Department.
Trials, tribulations and overcoming heartbreak
Cox has dedicated 33-years of service as a firefighter, from being a volunteer, to working part-time, to serving the last 13-years as the chief for the Bryant Fire Department. He also also served with numerous organizations, including: the International Association of Arson Investigators; Arkansas Fire Marshals Association; Arkansas Fire Chiefs Association; International Fire Chief's Association; served on the board for National Fire Protection Agency subcommittee; past member of the Saline County Firefighters Association; National Fallen Firefighter's Memorial Association and Arkansas Firefighter's Memorial; and he is now a board member of the Boys and Girls Club of Bryant.
Cox has saved a lot of lives since that time. He doesn't talk about it much as he said, "As a firefighter (saving lives) is something that we never really talk about because you don't want to sound like you are bragging." But he said it is rewarding to know when you have saved the life of a human being.
Cox mentioned how one day at McDonalds an elderly gentleman called him over to a table. The man told everyone around him that if it wasn't for the actions of the fire chief that he wouldn't be here today.
"He was the very first person that we used our automatic defibrillators on," Cox recalled. "He walked into the middle of the fire station one day and he had a heart attack. I remember hollering at the crew; we ended up having to shock him three times, but he is still alive today."
He said there are at least three times that a defibrillator has saved someone's life in his presence. Cox also recalled times of saving entire families from flooded ditches, and the time he got a man bound to a wheelchair out of a burning home. He said "unfortunately" there was a time after a tornado that two people were found seriously injured. It was a "very tough decision" but said one of them wasn't going to survive, and didn't, while the other showed promise of survival, and did because of firefighters quick actions.
"That is where it is tough to be in a chief's position. I mean that is tough. But you've got to put your emotions aside when you are on the scene and we train our guys to be that way," Cox said. "You can't be emotional, you've just got to do your job. You've got to do what you need to do to get the job done. Then you can come back (to the fire department) and let it all out behind closed doors."
He added, "But it isn't just me, the guys here do it everyday. They put their lives on the line everyday."
Though Cox was instrumental in changing Bryant from having a volunteer, part-time fire department to a 24-hour fire service station, there was a time period that he was virtually put on trial with city officials. This was the chief that first helped lower the Insurance Services Office, which affects the tax rates of residents, from a 7 to a 5. He later helped lower that ISO rating to a 3 and plans to lower it to a 2 before he leaves office.
The chief who convinced city government to allow firefighters to knock on residents doors to campaign for a sales tax to "have Bryant go to a full-time fire department" because he said "Lord, we really need to do this," was in turmoil with some firefighters he mentored. This same chief that calls his fire crew his "children" and personally drove to the fire academy in Camden, Ark. to help men and women struggling complete the school; who put in a plethora of hours to transition from a volunteer department to a 24-hour fire station, including a near impossible duty of hiring, training and certifying 23 firefighters within a year — was in jeopardy of losing his childhood dream job.
It was February of 2008, not long after the creation of the International Association of Firefighters Local 4606 that Cox was involved in a 50-day investigation by the city because he terminated two firefighters and 22-days later reinstated them. Cox said the two men had falsified time sheets and a duty roster on more than one occasion.
It was well documented in The Saline Courier that former Mayor Larry Mitchell, and several aldermen, supported the chief's decision on the termination, as well as the later reinstatement. However, the Bryant firefighter union had an issue. They even voted and sent to the city council and mayor a vote of no confidence in the chief's leadership. They cited "an absolute lack of faith in ... Cox's ability to manage the Bryant Fire Department."
After a 50-day investigation, the council and Mayor Mitchell exonerated Cox from any wrong doing. The investigation put a serious strain on the Bryant Fire Department employees, but in a ironic twist of fate, just weeks ago the Bryant Fire Union sent the council and Mayor Jill Dabbs a vote of confidence. Cox said it makes a bittersweet ending to his career.
"The vote happened before I announced my retirement, but it was just shared with me this week at a council meeting," Cox said with tears in his eyes. "To me there are two things that a firefighter can be proud of. One is when a firefighter tells you that they'll 'fight fires with you anytime' and second is a vote of confidence from your crew."
But not only did Cox survive, he flourished. And he still professes his love for all firefighters, especially his own crew.
"I tell people all the time that I have 48 kids that work for me," Cox said. "Firefighters are very close. You see (firefighters) as kids that grow into adults, so you think of them as your own."
He also used his experience to help families of fallen firefighters, from helping with funeral arrangements to helping fire stations plan coverage of their area while attending memorial services. But Cox also says that he has "been involved more than I've ever wanted to be with burying a brother. Sitting down with a family, that's a tough thing."
It's part of his philosophy, to not only give back to his community, but to strive in times of adversity.
"Some young guys ask me 'why do we go change a light bulb for little old ladies down the road?' but that is just part of what we should do as public servants for the community," Cox said. "I just get a drive anytime I can help my neighbor. More than anything, that is what I love about being a firefighter, helping a neighbor."
He also plans to continue to fight for pay grade increases for his firefighters before his upcoming retirement.
"I've been very actively arguing for it not just for the fire department but also on the police department side. I feel like I have a good plan put together to present to the mayor and city officials," Cox said. "I understand that it comes down to funding, but I also have funding options that won't cost the taxpayers anything. Firefighters have consistently taking hits on their pay. We can't compete with the big cities such as Little Rock, I understand that, but we've got to be more comparable. We are hiring in firefighters at $8.06 an hour and meter readers start out (at nearly a $1 more an hour); there is something wrong with that and we've got to get that fixed."
After a long emotional day on the job, Cox said there is always one place he can't wait to get to — home.
"I've got a Chihuahua named Smoke that's a little bit overweight, but he is always sitting at the door waiting on me," he said with smile. "For the first couple of years I had him, I would bring him to the station. He rode on the trucks and stuff, but then he got sick. I always tell the wife and kids that he is the only one that understands me. I can get mad at him and he'll still be right beside me."
Then there are the two granddaughters who he said are "the light of my life." There is even another granddaughter that is expected to be born on the chief's birthday in September. Cox said that is where his frowns are turned around and it is through them that tears are wiped away.
But Cox isn't just proud of "Pawpaw's girls." He said one of the greatest moments of his life was when his son Josh was promoted at the NLR Fire Department. Even though chief admits he asked his son to "really think about" the decision to become a firefighter in the first place.
"I told him that when grandpa and I started firefighting it was really tough," Cox said. "He wanted to come work for Bryant and I told him that I would support him, but he wasn't going to get any special treatment from me, and he knew that."
The chief's eye's then well up as he unsuccessfully attempts to hold back the tears. "Several months ago, (Josh) asked me to pin him when he got promoted to Lieutenant and that was a big honor," Cox said. "I got to put his badge on."
Last days on the job
Cox admits that the last day he walks away from his office, from his fellow firefighters, it will be one of the toughest days of his life. He holds back the tears again when asked if the firefighters he leaves behind are proud of him.
"It took me about 17-hours to write my retirement letter," Cox said. "It was tough to write it. I didn't want it too be too long or too mushy or even too short. But I wanted (the firefighters) to know that I am proud of them."
Through his 33-years of fire service, Cox has earned various awards, recognition and praise. However, he said the greatest reward as a fire chief is how he leaves the Bryant Fire Department.
"Knowing that I've laid a good foundation for the next person that comes in to move us to the next level. I feel that's my biggest accomplishment," Cox said. "The one thing I won't miss though (in retirement) is the tough politics. I feel like when I walk out the door on the 25, that I'll walk with my head up. I won't have any regrets. Everything we've ever done has been for the betterment of the community and the safety of our firefighters. I am definitely leaving the ship better than I found it."
He added, "It is easy to look back and see things that I probably would have done different. Some I really don't want to talk about, but I think overall we've had a good ride. I think we've done well."
In retirement, Cox said that "I have a lot of things to do around the house" and laughs that his wife "said I am going to be her house boy." He looks "very forward" to spending time with his granddaughters, and also wants to spend time with children at the Boys and Girls Club of Bryant. He said the organization "sucked me in and now I'm hooked."
Cox said that "just being there for the younger firefighters" is the thing "I'll probably miss the most." He hopes that they leave a particular cross and rosary beads inside the chief's vehicle; he once found it in a vehicle in which three priests died, which he said has stuck with him ever since. Cox also continues to carry a cross every day in his pocket that "a little old lady" gave him about six years ago.
It reminds him about what is important. It helps him mentor the youth. And to anyone that is considering becoming a firefighter, he leaves behind words of wisdom and good advice.
"Number one, you're not going to get rich off this job," he said with a laugh. "If you are getting in it to be a hero, you're doing it for the wrong reasons. If you get to a point in your career where you say that you're not scared, it's time to get out. If anyone tells you they are not scared when the go through that door, they are lying to you or they need to get out of the service."
Cox added, "Always continue to get your education. Learn everyday and make everyday an experience. Today, fire departments are also looking for firefighters with leadership and business skills. This isn't our daddy's fire department anymore. Things are changing every day and the more skills you learn, the better your career will be. Always give 110 percent and never leave a brother behind."