How lucky are we to live in a community that has provided a world class level of protection and service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year since 1962? The Cape Coral Fire Department is staffed with men and women who have dedicated their lives to fulfill a desire to serve others in emergency situations. Often this calling comes at an early age. In the case of Cape Coral Fire Chief Donald Cochran, he knew at 4 years old what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Raised on a farm in Homestead, Florida, Don’s older brother and sister were firefighters. He remembers wanting to be one, too. Many of us may never have considered what this means unless our lives are touched by chaos, an emergency, something beyond our control. We dial 3 numbers and dedicated, highly trained strangers come to our rescue and do everything in their power to help, maybe to bring a new life into our world, maybe to save a house engulfed in flames or maybe to resuscitate a loved one. Whatever the circumstance, it is humbling to consider our fellow citizens and what they put on the line physically and emotionally when they deal with our emergencies.
Our Fire Chief is a special man, one of humble beginnings, who with his wife of 20 years fulfilled his life’s dream of serving others. When he was twenty, he was accepted into the fire academy in Ocala, along with his best friend from high school. At that time, there were few fire academies and a big waiting list; it took a year and a half to get in. Don’s first job was with the San Carlos Fire Department. Six months later, among 250 applicants for positions in the Cape Coral Fire Department, he was one of 16 to get hired. It was a dream came true, as it’s where he always wanted to work.
Married in 1996, Don and Maureen had very little, he laughs, “Her tv had the picture, my tv had the volume; they had to be tuned in to the same station to make it work.” His starting pay was $7.01/hour, not a livable wage, so he had second jobs. He worked on Sanibel in hotel maintenance first and then as a substitute teacher for eight years, mostly in a middle school with special needs students, but all the time living and working alongside his fellow firefighters. “Like every other firefighter” he said, “I wanted to do this. So you worked on your days off to make ends meet to supplement your income.”
In his 27 years of service, he “went from riding backwards on the truck (as a firefighter) to driving the truck (as an Engineer) to riding in the passenger’s seat on the truck and running a station (as a lieutenant) to Battalion Chief (in charge of 5 stations, half the city) and after that went into the office and was acting Deputy Chief in 2006-7 until the economic crash.” That position was eliminated, so he went back to Battalion Chief where he figured he’d end his career. But the Union, City Manager, City Council, and the Mayor asked him to step up and take over the department on an interim basis when former Fire Chief Hayes stepped down and there were several retirements in the management level. The City Manager was very happy with his performance and eventually promoted him to Fire Chief.
He has a transformational leadership style which is rare in a fire department (most are directed under an authoritarian style.) He feels it’s important for every single person in the department (including those who ride backwards on the truck) to know exactly what he does and exactly what needs to be done. “Surround yourself with intelligent, smart, ambitious people and you will have success.”
Don emphasizes: “I am where I am today because of everyone around me, because of my wife, standing beside me. The men and women of the department put me here, they had faith in me. My closest friends helped me throughout my career, I had the support of the City Manager, Mayor and Council. All of these people are the reason why I am here.”
“In my opinion, a leader will not be judged until after they’re are gone. It’s about how well the department will do after one leaves. I have done nothing since I’ve walked in the door as a chief but to hire the most qualified people, to build the walls of this administration so they can take it to the next level. I came in, stabilized it, laid out the vision for them. But it’s the people who made the sacrifices before I got here who laid the foundation. It’s always been a great department. It’s not about me, it’s about the people who made and continue to make the sacrifices, those who have seen things no one should see, those who’ve died.”
Firefighters are trained to work as a team. They eat, sleep and rescue together, they live together and they can die together. They sacrifice time and landmark moments with their own families to serve us, to be on call the moment we need them. We salute Fire Chief Donald Cochran for dedicating 27 years of his life to the safety and care of the citizens of Cape Coral and for being on our team. Thank you, Chief.
Written by Cape Coral resident Sandra Appaneal