GAINESVILLE, Ga. (AP) — Jerome Yarbrough has been a man of uniform since he left high school, whether it was for the U.S. Army or the Gainesville Fire Department.
After 37 years with the latter, the outgoing fire chief now has to adapt to a new wardrobe.
“My biggest task right now is what I wear every day, because I really haven’t had a civilian lifestyle,” Yarbrough said, adding that he still has “a pretty good style.”
Gainesville Fire Capt. Brandon Ellis became the new chief Jan. 1.
The city of Gainesville named Ellis as the successor in November, two months after Yarbrough announced his retirement.
Joining the department in 1984, Yarbrough said there is “no blueprint” for how you start and stop a career like that with the fire department. Having turned things over to Ellis about a month ago, the retiring chief said he has been working to tie off any loose ends.
After graduating high school in 1977, Yarbrough served as a medic in the Army. He joined the Hall County Sheriff’s Office in 1982 before being hired at the Gainesville Fire Department two years later.
It was roughly 10 years in that he decided to gear his career toward possibly becoming the chief.
That would mean coming off the firefighter’s schedule — 24 hours on and 48 hours off — to the 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday lifestyle. Though he enjoyed riding in the truck and answering calls, he said he knew he had to make the move to the administrative side if he wanted to follow his career dreams.
He said he feels he is “handing it off to Chief Ellis in a better shape” than when he took over.
“If I offered this job up to any fire chief in Georgia, they probably would take it,” Yarbrough said.
One example of this is the Insurance Services Office class one rating, which is the highest achievable rating for a department based on training, coverage area and other variables.
Yarbrough arrived at the department when it was a class four rating. After 15 years, the department had moved up to class two and had plateaued there.
“We just buckled down and said, ‘What are we doing wrong and what do we need to put an emphasis on to go ahead and achieve this?’” Yarbrough said when promoted to chief in 2013.
The following year, Gainesville Fire got to the class one rating and maintained that grade in 2018.
BECOMING A FIREFIGHTER
It was a field trip with the Gainesville-Hall County Boys Club, which is now the Boys and Girls Clubs of Lanier, to the fire station that sparked the idea of becoming a firefighter.
“If the Boys and Girls Club wasn’t there, I probably would have taken a different road,” Yarbrough said. “We had positive leaders that tried to steer you … (into) just being a productive citizen once you grow up.”
Yarbrough, who has served on the clubs’ board of directors, said he sees himself in those kids coming up through that program.
He became part of the Georgia Boys and Girls Clubs’ hall of fame in 2019.
“I hope I paved the way for somebody to emulate or follow, because we love to recruit right here in this community,” Yarbrough said.
Yarbrough grew up in Gainesville during the Civil Rights Era and the integration of schools. As an 8-year-old, he said he “didn’t understand it” as he felt it was mostly adult business.
“I don’t think we’re completely where we need to be on race relations, but we’re a lot better,” Yarbrough said. “This community seemed to function way better than most communities around the state and world.”
One of the first times he ever experienced something connected to race relations was going on Saturdays with his grandmother to Woolworth’s, where they sold fountain sodas with ice cream served at the counter.
Yarbrough always wanted one but didn’t have the nickel to buy it.
One day, his grandmother gave him the change to get one, but the employee put it in a paper cup instead of the traditional metal cup that would frost.
“I didn’t understand that,” Yarbrough said. “You walked by certain bathrooms and water fountains that you couldn’t use. That was different. I don’t share that with a lot of people, because I put it behind me.”
Yarbrough said he was the second Black firefighter hired with the department, and he would be the first Black man to hold the different titles on his way to becoming chief.
“I didn’t even think about it until somebody brought it to my attention a few years ago. … The first ain’t no big thing with me,” the chief said. “It was a goal I set. Now looking back at my childhood, did I think I could do that? No, I didn’t, because everybody had their place back in the ’60s.”
Yarbrough said race or the thought of becoming the first Black chief didn’t play a role in his goals. It was more to him to become the head of a department in his hometown.
“We’re brothers up here,” the chief said. “We’re a family, regardless of race or whatever.”
‘MORE ABOUT THE COMMUNITY’
Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish first met Yarbrough when the two were a detective and fire marshal, respectively.
In the early 2000s, the two future chiefs were working to investigate a few arsons together. Parrish said Yarbrough “mentored me and walked me through some crime scenes,” teaching him a great deal about fire investigations.
He described the outgoing fire chief as an altruistic man who worked long hours in dedication to the city.
“He taught me that it was always more about the community than it ever is yourself,” Parrish said.
When Parrish became police chief, he would call Yarbrough for advice on handling personnel issues or city processes.
It was during severe storms — trees down and power outages — that the two would collaborate side-by-side at an incident command
“He taught me how to remain calm,” Parrish said. “Trust your people, let them do their jobs and remain calm. I think he never really spoke those words. I just watched how he carried himself.”
When anticipating walking out of the fire station for the last time, Yarbrough said he would likely think about the family and the people at the station.
“I always am going to have them in my heart,” Yarbrough said. “They say once you leave (and) you hear that siren, you’re always wondering where they’re going and what they’re doing.”
Yarbrough met his wife, Deborah, as a fire inspector when her mother was setting up a business. Yarbrough has five children, four boys and a girl, who are all grown.
Yarbrough said he plans to remain in his hometown Gainesville, though he will get out and do some traveling.
“It’s time to enjoy life and move on,” he said.
Yarbrough said he’s never been much of a fisherman or a hunter, but maybe it’s time to try. He has been a fan of cruises where he can visit a lot of different places.
“I dip in and two hours later I’m back on the boat, and we’re going somewhere else,” Yarbrough said.
He also mentioned a possible trip out West, where he’d rent a car and drive up the coast.