COUNCIL BLUFFS — It has to be hard to walk away.
After 35 years of worrying about people's property and lives, and nearly 20 years of constant concern for the entire community, Bluffs Fire Chief Alan Byers is saying goodbye Friday. The 58-year-old has been a firefighter in Council Bluffs since 1978 and the fire chief for 19 years.
“It's time for somebody else to have their chance as chief and bring their ideas to the job,” he said. “A new direction for the department.”
Byers was promoted from captain to chief in 1994. Byers said he applied for the job, after some coaxing, to get interviewing experience for what he thought would be an open assistant fire chief's position.
The department has seen massive changes.
“When I made chief, there were a lot of opportunities given to me that previous chiefs didn't have,” Byers said. “With gaming and city growth, we had a lot of opportunity to grow.”
The training and equipment used by today's fire department is on par with any department in the nation, Byers said.
“You can judge yourself on how others look at your department,” he said. “When you do a comparison with any other fire department, we're on top.”
Proof of that can be found in the department's Insurance Services Office rating, Byers said.
Fire departments nationwide undergo rating by the ISO about every 10 years. ISO evaluates a city's fire protection resources, including the fire department, communications and water supply. With the assistance of the Council Bluffs Water Works and the Pottawattamie County 911 Communications Center, the City of Council Bluffs achieved a Class 2 community protection rating in February, an upgrade from the previous Class 3 rating.
There are only three such rated departments in Iowa.
Byers, born in Indianapolis, moved to Clarinda after the eighth grade, when a fire destroyed the plant where his father worked. Byers initially went to work at Wilson Foods, where his father worked, but he quickly realized that factory work was not for him.
A couple of friends were volunteer firefighters in Clarinda. One day, after riding motorcycles in Council Bluffs, Byers and his friends returned to find Clarinda's church/theater on fire.
The friends jumped into action. Byers stuck around to watch, and he ended up on the hose line.
“I wasn't one of those kids who wanted to be a firefighter all their life,” he said, laughing. “But I thought, 'This is pretty cool,' and I've been fortunate to turn it into a career here.”
He was amazed by the outpouring of support he received when he started Project Alex — a campaign to install working smoke detectors in every home in the city, which began the day after a Sept. 20, 2010, fire claimed the life of 7-year-old Alex Buzzetta.
“I was amazed how many people and organizations turned out to help with funding or volunteering,” he said.
Although the flood of 2011 inflicted misery on hundreds of residents, Byers said, it was uplifting to see the community come together. As the event commander, Byers had a front-row, 24-hours-a-day seat to the flooding and its aftermath.
“I saw the community going through a horrendous time, but it was also cool to see the volunteers step up. It made you glad to live here,” he said. “At the first sandbagging event, I was standing there with hundreds of people volunteering to work, and I'm thinking, 'This is why you want to live in the Midwest.' ”
Hanafan said Byers was always on top of any situation.
“When any large incident would happen, Alan would show up and I would get a call, 'We got this, this and this, and we're going to do this,' ” Hanafan said.
“Alan would say that what our department does today reflects on those that served before us, those serving now and those in the future. It's an interesting tactic; it's not about today or what used to happen, but combining all three. That's what you're looking for.”
Byers said it's easy to remember the positives, and he has tried to let go of the bad memories — memories of pain, loss and heartache.
“You see the best and the worst of what a community goes through,” he said. “I won't miss seeing people go through situations no one should have to endure, but I will miss lending them a hand, helping them in some small way.”
Byers doesn't know what's next for him in life, but he knows it doesn't involve another job. If he wanted to work, he said, he would have stayed with the department.
He will golf and travel with his wife, Sandy. There are some things he has put off doing around the house over the past 35 years. And if he gets bored, there are always three grandchildren to brighten his day.
“There's some trepidation with this life-changing thing,” he said. “But the biggest thing is: I'm not leaving here with any regrets. The Fire department is in a good state, and that credit goes to a long list of people.”