This family of firefighters has been rescuing Cincinnatians for generations. From left are James A. Bell; Gregory M. Phelia Sr.; Cincinnati Office of Human Relations Director Paul M. Booth, who hosted the interview with Marla Hurston; and Greg Phelia Jr., District Fire Chief. James A. Bell is the son of Greg Jr. Photo by Marla Hurston

By Marla Hurston 

Herald Contributor

Often the first responders in emergency situations, paid and volunteer firefighters play a vital role in their communities.

The Cincinnati Fire Department delivers fire suppression, emergency medical services (EMS), technical rescue including urban search and rescue, hazardous materials mitigation, fire prevention, domestic preparedness, fire and EMS safety education and fire investigation programs. From 26 fire stations, CFD protects a population of more than 330,000 residing in 80 square miles of the City of Cincinnati.

One local family has three generations of fire fighters. Those include Gregory M. Phelia Sr. who retired in 1990 as a Paramedic; Greg Phelia Jr., District Fire Chief; and James A. Bell, Greg Jr.’s son who is a Firefighter 4 and currently in Paramedic School.

Greg Sr. first came to the fire department in 1980. He’s considered a pioneer African American firefighter. He started out managing communications hooking up telephone systems for the city and he got to know some of the firefighters. A self-proclaimed humanitarian, he wanted a job where he could help people so he decided to take the Cincinnati police test and the firefighter’s test after getting to know many of the staff through working in communications. He scored high on both tests which assess psychological ability and interpersonal skills. Greg Sr. was offered a position with both the Cincinnati police and the fire departments. He chose to join the fire department, because he felt it would be a fulfilling and prosperous career that would enable him to care for his growing family. 

Greg Sr. says firefighters need to make many sacrifices and compromises and have the willingness and ability to live and work very dynamically. “You’ve got to be committed and understand what you’re being committed to,” Greg Sr. said. “There’s a lot to deal with in spur of the moment situations. You can’t rush into it.”

He explains that the basic qualities someone who wants to be a firefighter needs to have is a love of people and a desire to help. The job entails driving ladders and engine companies. You also have to be physically fit. 

Greg Sr. describes his most traumatizing experience on the job as having his right hand partially amputated. His hand got stuck in a fire hydrant due to 200 pounds of water pressure and ice pending his hand to the top of the hydrant outlet. When he tried to pull it back, the top portion of his hand was completely amputated. He immediately walked back to his assigned firehouse and kicked on the door for assistance. When his fellow firefighters opened the door and saw him, they were shocked to see the top portion of his right hand gone. “Because I didn’t panic, and maintained arterial pressure, I’m here today to share my story.”

Greg Jr. was heavily influenced by his father’s career growing up. He said that having a fire fighter in the house and seeing his dad doing something he loved as well as providing for his family was impactful on him. As a sophomore in college Greg Jr. really started thinking about his own career and soon concluded that being a firefighter was a win, win – you get paid helping those in need. He quickly pursued it and has enjoyed it immensely.

These firefighters/paramedics have kept their professions in the family. From left are James A. Bell, Greg Phelia Jr. and Gregory M. Phelia Sr. Photo by Marla Hurston

Greg Jr. is in his 28th year as a firefighter. He’s seen quite a bit. One particular run he responded to proved especially traumatic. A man had shot himself in the head. He says a firefighter has to be able to deal with stress. “You have to be spiritually grounded.” He also says it’s been helpful to be able to rely on his father for advice and counsel. It helps ground him a bit more. Ultimately, Greg Jr. attributes his love for helping others to making it easier to do his job not knowing what you’ll face each day. 

While you have to be willing to sacrifice your life to save another, Greg Jr. encourages people who are interested in a career as a firefighter to just do it. As challenging as it is trying to revive people, consoling victims and their families during rescue runs, you have full-time support from professionals and peers, he explains. 

Although Greg Jr. has lost two of his peers in the line of duty during his career, he’s also experienced the miracle of bringing babies into the world. He’s delivered four babies to date.  

Similarly, James decided to follow in his grandfather and father’s footsteps. He says that they were good examples and played a huge role in him becoming a firefighter. Like them, he also wanted to help people. In addition, it was also important to him that he continue the family legacy. 

James describes his career as being the most remarkable and challenging experience. He’s enjoyed getting to know the people he works with and feels like they’re all a team. Having grown up in the city, he appreciates the diversity of the department. There are 800 firefighters all from different backgrounds, age groups and ethnicities. 

He admits that the job does not come without drama and at times chaos. One of the most traumatic experiences he’s had was during the Fifth Third Bank shooting in 2018. He was on the medic unit and was responsible for transporting one of the shooting victims to the hospital. James describes the scene as absolute chaos. Although the police did a great job trying to keep everyone safe, there was a lot going on. There were civilians running around in a panic and people not understanding what had happened. Others were there just to see what was going on, and still more people were trying to evacuate the area. 

James says his number one job in situations like this is to make sure he is safe while keeping everyone else safe too. In such times, he attributes the people he works with for getting through it all. “You never respond to a run alone, so you get to deal with whatever the situation is together,” James stated. “A firefighter can never allow everything to affect them or it’s impossible to do your job.”

James echoes the sentiment that staying spiritually grounded, being physically fit, being brave and having a desire to help others are all skills that are needed to be a good firefighter. James also explains that patience is key. The process to become a firefighter is long, it can take up to 2 years.  We work 24 hours and have 48 hours off. He encourages candidates to just stick to it. “It’s worth it in the long run,” he added. 

It’s evident that a seed has been rooted and grounded amongst the three. 

All three men agree that the recruitment process to become a firefighter is long, and one must be patient. They suggest that anyone interested in becoming a firefighter should ask a firefighter what it’s like to be a firefighter and get a full understanding of the time, commitment and risks.  

For those firefighters interested in becoming a member of Cincinnati African American Firefighters Association, it is easy. Simply reach out to an executive staff member and express your interest. The organization is a group of firefighters who voluntarily fight for equality, fairness and equity throughout the department, because at times they still run into discrimination issues.   

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