By Annie Howard
After nine years on the job, Vestavia Hills’ fire chief said he is moving on to “the next big thing.”
James “Jim” St. John will retire from the Vestavia Hills fire department at the end of April to work with the Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency.
He served as fire chief for nearly a decade, but he’s been involved with Vestavia’s fire department for 29 years.
“I was an engineering student at UAB in 1985,” he said, recalling his early days in fire service. “It wasn’t what I wanted to do, and I could tell that. I stopped by a Birmingham fire station one day and said, how do you get a job here?”
St. John started off at the Pleasant Grove fire department and soon knew he was “in the right place and doing the right thing.”
About 1988, an opportunity to transfer to Vestavia opened up, and the rest is history.
During his stint in fire service, St. John has dealt with a variety of situations, from fielding calls during the 2001 anthrax scare to handling response to the 2011 tornadoes.
“The threats that people customarily associate us with is why we have a big red truck,” he laughed. But work in fire service involves a variety of situations beyond fire response. Tornadoes, flooding, hazardous materials response, technical rescue – he and his department have prepped for a lot more than fire.
“There’s an attitude in the fire service that firefighters can’t walk past a bad situation without stopping to try to correct it,” he said. “I’m proud to have been in a field where we’ve never left anything in worse shape than when we got there. We’ve always been able to help somewhat.”
He’s seen just about every corner of the job. Before his time as chief, he worked on both the fire engine and the rescue truck – first as a dual-role paramedic and firefighter, then as a company officer, directing firefighters on the engine and truck.
In 2002, he became battalion chief, overseeing all stations in the department on a 24-hour shift. During that time, he also supervised technical rescue and hazardous materials response as a special operations chief. He moved to the department’s training office in 2007, documenting training requirements.
In 2008, he was promoted to fire chief.
On top of a career in the fire department, St. John also served in the Army Reserves.
“I think that most people that know me and have known me for a long time tend to think ‘firefighter,’ but I think what’s more in my core is solder,” he said. He was master sergeant in the infantry and trained soldiers for stations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Firefighters and soldiers have different uniforms, but he sees the same essence in both jobs.
“There’s a spirit of service there that transcends clothing or job,” he said. “People are drawn to those jobs because they have a desire to serve others and make a positive change. And a lot of times, they’re willing to do that at the expense of comfort or pay.”
St. John certainly has that spirit of service. He has strong roots in Vestavia; he started school at Vestavia Hills Elementary East and graduated from W.A. Berry. He’s stayed engaged in the community as a firefighter, but he also serves on the Vestavia Hills Rotary Club and in 2013 took on the role of interim city manager.
“I started in Vestavia and Vestavia’s always been dear to my heart,” he said.
As his time with the fire department comes to a close, he feels he’s made a difference in his community.
“I’ve seen a lot of things that were tragic that we couldn’t fix when we got there. We just had to handle the situation the best way that it could be handled,” he said. “But conversely, I’ve also seen a lot of calls where we were able to stop the bleeding or extinguish the fire or stabilize the situation and save or preserve life. And that’s been very gratifying.”
After retiring from fire service, he plans to work at the Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency.
“I’ve got another career coming and I’m excited about the challenges that I’m going to meet there,” he said. He will continue to use the skills he’s acquired over the years to help the greater community.
“The Jefferson county region has always been home to me,” he said. “I want to help make my home a safer place.”