Published: 2:07 pm, Sun. Feb. 5th, 2017Updated: 2:03 pm
Most individuals at the top of their game in their chosen profession would seek to make that situation the status quo. A healthy list of personal achievements, a staff not only talented and capable but happy, a work environment functioning like a well-oiled machine – these seem like the lights at the end of the tunnel.
But J.D. Hummingbird has never been one for complacence. For him, the journey, not the destination, is what keeps his fire burning – well-monitored and not in a barrel, of course – for the occupation he loves.
And so, in January, Hummingbird made the official decision that he’d done all he could do for the Artesia Fire Department. His retirement took effect Jan. 30. It was time to find other kindling to tend.
“I will miss working with each and every person here,” Hummingbird says. “This city’s taken very good care of me and my family, but it is time for me to move on and let somebody else step up and take the reins.”
Hummingbird came to Artesia July 11, 2006, hired by then-mayor Manuel Madrid. He was fresh off retirement from a 20-year career in firefighting for the U.S. Air Force that included a stint as chief of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) Fire Academy.
He and his family – which includes wife Kara, who, along with her husband, retired from the USAF as a master sergeant, and children Lia, Tara, Drake, Kelsi and Kerrigan – came back to New Mexico in ‘06 from Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. They’d lived in the state once before, beginning in 1992, when Hummingbird was stationed at Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis.
Madrid had two particular tasks in mind for the AFD’s new chief.
“They were to create an Early Warning System, which is our siren system that we use, and I got that accomplished within about the first year,” said Hummingbird. “Then, the city wanted a new fire station designed and constructed, and we reside in that now.”
Frankly, the city would have been perfectly content with just those two accomplishments. Hummingbird, of course, was not.
He set a few additional goals for himself, including the strengthening of Artesia’s EMS program, training increases across the board for AFD staff, and the construction of a training tower.
Hummingbird trained the city’s first paramedics, has helmed the most highly-qualified fire employees in the state, and guided the training tower project to near-completion. In between, he saw the AFD’s Station 1 earn a Gold Medal Award for Shared Facilities from Fire Chief Magazine in 2011, replaced all of the city’s ambulances and three engines with the help of more than $1.4 million in grants, instituted Artesia’s first-ever fire academy, was awarded Fire Chief of the Year at the New Mexico Fire and EMS Expo in 2013, and became well-loved around the state to boot for his habit of donating replaced fire vehicles to various smaller and struggling departments.
Under the leadership of Hummingbird and his staff, the AFD also earned an Insurance Service Organization (ISO) rating of 2. That improvement from the community’s previous 5 rating placed Artesia’s fire department in the top 1 percent of departments in both the state and nation, and resulted in lower property insurance rates for citizens.
“Reorganizing the rank structure to put the right people in the right jobs was one of the things I’m most proud of,” Hummingbird says. “The fact we were able to acquire some of the best equipment any fire department in the state’s ever worked with is another. And the level of training that these guys have achieved.
“I just kind of pushed them in the right direction, and they did the rest. They just had to be given the chance to succeed, and they’ve really succeeded. You’ve got some seriously outstandingly-trained personnel. My ultimate responsibility was trying to mesh their personal goals with the department’s and the city’s goals, and I think we pulled that off. If you can get those two goals to match up, it’s a win-win for everyone.”
Hummingbird gives credit to a staff of officers he says he was lucky to have, a rare combination of experience, knowledge, and desire to raise the bar both personally and professionally.
“The house that we’ve built fell down to just a few people, really, that’ve been doing this for a long time,” he says. “The biggest part of that was Kevin Hope, my former division chief of operations and EMS. He and I together worked really hard, and you also have Rick Burks, James Abner, Mark Mason, all my officers at the battalion chiefs level, the lieutenants – every one of them was on the same page and able to build something each and every one of us is proud of.
“I hope the city is, too. I think they are.”
And then there are the firefighters themselves, of whom Hummingbird speaks like a proud father.
“They’re the best I’ve worked with in 32 years of being in fire service,” he says. “They genuinely care about their community and doing a good job.
“I never forgot where I came from. I happen to be sitting in the chief’s chair, but I’m still a firefighter, so I know exactly how they feel. And that’s probably what made my connection with them a little bit better – I don’t treat them as the chief to a low-ranking firefighter. I know exactly how they feel, and I know how I wanted to be treated, so that’s how I tried to treat them. And it worked.”
Hummingbird received significant praise from the Artesia City Council Jan. 24 at his final meeting, along with a few good-natured pleas to remain in the City of Champions.
“I’m extremely honored to have served as fire chief here,” he says. “This department is one of the best in the state, and that’s not anything I did – it’s something that each and every one of us did, everybody from me all the way down to the newest firefighter.
“We’ve created an environment where we expect a higher level of performance, and everybody is doing just that. They’re performing at a level that has been recognized by this state and beyond.”
Hummingbird isn’t ready to hang up his badge by any means and remains open to other opportunities, other departments that need him. For now, though, he plans to take at least a little time off to enjoy his family and some well-deserved R&R.
“There are a ton of memories I’ll take away from here, a lot of friends, and that’ll never change,” he says. “I’ll stay in touch with these guys. They’ll know how to find me.
“But a long time ago, a supervisor told me, ‘J.D., nobody ever gets promoted by getting pulled up – they get pushed out. That means you’ve taught everybody else your job, they don’t need you; go on and do something else. Go to the next level.’ And he was right. These guys are at the point in their careers where they know more than I do now. And it’s time for them to step up and assume the leadership role. Time for a new set of eyes to lead this department.”