By Coshandra Dillard
David Coble is two weeks into his new role as chief of the Tyler Fire Department and he has a few things on his mind–making the city safer, improving diversity in the department, and giving back to the community.
While he enjoys being a leader, he’s not fulfilled by publicity he’s sure to encounter.
“I’ve always believed in servant leadership,” he said.
Born and raised in Forth Worth, Coble began his 32-year career there. He was second in command when he left the Fort Worth Fire Department, serving as executive assistant chief. The department has nearly 1,000 firefighters at 42 fire stations.
In Tyler, he now leads 155 firefighters at 10 stations. The department was one of five where he considered becoming a fire chief. He was a finalist at three, but Coble was drawn to Tyler.
“When I saw Tyler had an opening, I started studying Tyler, the department, the size and people,” he said. “I just felt led to choose Tyler over another department that I had put in for.”
Coble said Tyler is the place he is supposed to be, and it shares some characteristics of his hometown.
“Fort Worth is not Dallas–on purpose,” he explained. “It’s a big city that has a town feel. People still speak to one another on the side of the street. People still make eye contact. When I came to Tyler, I felt the same thing.”
Becoming a firefighter wasn’t Coble’s first career choice. His brother-in-law, a firefighter, encouraged Coble to join the profession while he was studying electrical engineering at The University of Texas at Arlington.
He already had a job at Tandy Corporation, working full time to pay his way through school. In his third year, he decided to take the civil service test. He passed it.
“I wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to be a firefighter so I went on vacation from the Tandy Corporation for two weeks,” he said.
After much thought and observation, he was attracted to the multifaceted and service-oriented occupation.
“It wasn’t a lifelong dream of mine as a kid, but it really matched with my spirit–the servant attitude that I have about life,” Coble said.
He rose up in the ranks, but not overnight. Coble garnered degrees, certifications and joined organizations to help pave a path to leadership in his field. He earned an associate of applied science degree in fire science administration from Weatherford College, a bachelor of business administration degree from Dallas Baptist University, and a master of business administration degree from Texas A&M University – Commerce.
He is a graduate of in the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland, the Carl Holmes Executive Development Institute at Clark Atlanta University, National Forum for Black Public Administrators Executive Leadership and Development Institute, and a graduate of Leadership Fort Worth.
Coble is a state certified emergency medical technician, and holds several certifications with the Texas Commission on Fire Protection including as a master firefighter and master fire inspector.
“I don’t feel like I’ve really worked a day in my life because I enjoy what I do,” he said. “I enjoy helping people. We go to people’s homes or business, traveling along the road, sometimes on their worse day and we’re able at the end of the day to make things better for them before we leave. We can’t always fix what’s already happened but we at least comfort them and make their day better.”
While Coble is not the first black firefighter at the Tyler Fire Department, he is the first black chief there and is currently the only black fireman on staff. Coble said so he hasn’t thought much about his pioneering role because Tyler residents of all ethnicities have been welcoming to him.
“I take that to heart, although I know there is work to be done in the recruiting of women and minorities,” he said. Lack of diversity has long been an issue for fire departments across the country, including in Tyler.
At a recent firefighter academy graduation at Tyler Junior College, Coble said he was vocal about his disappointment in the lack of diversity, noting that there was only one African American in the class. There also were no Hispanics or women in the class.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were only 7.7 black firefighters in 2012, up from 5 percent in 1985, the year Coble began his career.
In 2012, women comprised only 3.4 percent of all firefighters, and were almost nonexistent three decades before. There also are no women firefighters in Tyler.
Prior to the civil rights movement, people of color and women had a tough time securing integrated civil service jobs.
In addition, firefighters–like police officers–was often a legacy occupation, passed down in families whose relatives were firefighters in previous generations, Coble noted.
Economic and other factors may also affect minorities and women. The City of Tyler requires applicants to be certified before they take the civil service exam. That means applicants must go through a fire academy to be certified as an emergency medical technician and firefighter before taking the exam.
“Many times, people don’t have the three months of not working to go to a fire academy on their own and pay for it,” Coble said.
He said education about opportunities and exposure to the field is needed to recruit more women and minorities to fire departments. For example, he said many don’t know about or don’t take advantage of the fact that military veterans receive five extra points on the civil service exam.
“Until we insert ourselves in some places, you don’t have that face or that name to see–it’s no different from the president we currently have. Until he became president, it was said that could never happen, but now we know we can.”
A state law, Chapter 143, was established to ensure fair hiring practices for civil service workers. Coble wants to work within this code and form committees to find ways to improve diversity in Tyler. This includes speaking with minority students about the paths to becoming a firefighter.
“I want to see more women and minorities in the Tyler Fire Department,” he said. “I don’t want to say we’re hampered by the state law, but working within the state law we’ll do the things that we can in order to create exposure.”
A fire department does much more than fighting fires. In fact, Coble said about 80 percent of their calls are about other emergencies. It’s why fire departments have rescue teams trained to handle situations such as flooding and hazardous materials.
“We call ourselves a fire department, but we’re really an all-hazards department,” he said. “If it’s not about someone shooting at someone else, the fire department is going to be called on.”
Coble wants to put more attention into prevention efforts, department efficiency, and community outreach. Throughout his career, he’s has been involved in community-based organizations and seeks to engage Tyler youth as well. He wants to give back to those needing guidance and mentorship, the way others did for him.
“Were’ about community involvement,” Coble sad. “That’s part of my campaign here.”
IF YOU GO:
What: Meet and Greet with Tyler Fire Chief David Coble
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17
Where: Tyler Rose Garden Center, 420 Rose Garden Park