Raised in Hardy, Arkansas, the son of a firefighter decided early in life that his life’s ambition lay in his father’s field.
However, like many young adults feeling out their way in the world, Alan Dunn needed a nudge to point him toward the career that seems, looking back, such an obvious calling.
“I grew up as a grocery store stock boy and went into management,” recalled Dunn, who retires Friday, April 24, after 32 years with the Jonesboro Fire Department.
Seeing that his management career would lead him out of Arkansas and the world he loved, Dunn found a job on a firetruck in Cherokee Village. It wasn’t long before Fire Chief Leon Sharp recognized the potential of his young hand, and recommended that Dunn consider applying in Jonesboro.
“I took a job as a rookie firefighter at the age of 28,” Dunn said, “riding the tail of the truck and pulling off the hose – when I was told to – to fight fires.
“When I came to Jonesboro, it didn’t take long to realize this is what was meant for me.”
Luther Dunn was a proud father. He passed away in 2002 and took pride in a son who took up the mantle of a civil servant who respected the job, the preparation that the public often takes for granted, and the personal reward of a job well done.
“The best advice he gave me was, ‘Do the very best at whatever you can do,’ ” Alan Dunn said.
In short order, he took Civil Service exams that qualified him for promotions. They came pretty quickly in those days, and he became a driver in 1989 and a lieutenant in 1991. The tests are administered by the Civil Service Commission and include written and interview components.
Dunn excelled and a year later, 1999, became a captain. In 2012, he graduated to assistant chief. Through all those years, he never changed, never wavered, and always made the safety of both the public and his fellow firefighters his No. 1 priority.
“Alan Dunn has been not a good, but an outstanding officer,” Jonesboro Fire Chief Kevin Miller said. “In every position he’s held, he’s excelled. In his last eight years as assistant chief, I couldn’t have asked for better.”
In fact, Miller said he was not joking when he first declined to accept Dunn’s resignation. (Technicality: Even fire chiefs cannot deny an assistant’s retirement. Legally, anyway.)
“When he told me his intentions to retire, I told him no,” Miller said. “He’s been not only a good officer but a good friend. Not just for the Jonesboro Fire Department, but the entire state.
“Alan has played important roles in Black River VoTech Fire Training, the Arkansas State Firefighters Association, our local union – he is a former president. He’s been working to improve firefighters across the state for 30 years.”
His strengths are discipline, knowledge and professionalism. If he could impress upon the public one thing about firefighting, it is that the job requires a lot more than waiting for the next alarm.
“I don’t think people know the amount of time and effort put into training,” Dunn said. “I think a lot of people believe you come to the fire station, wait until the tones go off, then do what you do. They don’t see the hours of training that often seem repetitive.”
It’s that training that keeps firefighters calm and focused under duress, as Dunn was almost two decades ago, as a young battalion chief, leading the response to a fraternity house fire at Arkansas State University. It was that demeanor that made him the perfect leader for JFD’s remarkable response in the wake of the March 28 tornado that left a five-mile stretch of Jonesboro in shambles.
“That fraternity house was a building, and there were all kinds of problems,” Miller recalled. “Alan was the incident commander, and there were some very close calls with people involved in it. He worked through the night, and I relieved him in the morning. It was handled when I arrived, for the most part, all because of Alan.”
Dunn was not allowed a peaceful path to retirement. Last month’s tornado saw to that. No one at JFD can recall a time of greater response.
“We had three things going on at the same time,” Miller said of the tornado. “We had the tornado, we had a major fire, and we had a train derailment.”
Dunn was assigned the fire, a massive outbreak that destroyed the Camfil factory and headquarters on Airport Road.
“I knew without a doubt, Alan would take care of the fire,” Miller said. “I was at the mall, and looking at all at the smoke, I knew it was quite a fire, and that he would have to handle it with limited resources, because at that time we didn’t know how bad the train derailment was.”
With different firefighters and vehicles responding all over the city, Dunn and his staff was left initially to fight the Camfil fire as he were addressing “a major fire with a garden hose,” Miller said.
Dunn first had to ascertain that no one was in the factory. Then came the job of containing the fire to ensure it didn’t spread to other structures – a job complicated by the scene of fading daylight and massive tornado debris all around the property.
“We had people handling all that at the same time. And his focus, his ability to handle that, coordinating with other departments that showed up to help, it was remarkable,” Miller said. “With all the damage and debris, it was very difficult to get to the seed of the fire. He’s hearing all the other issues we’re having on the scene on this. That’s a notch to be proud of, but you hope you never have to do it again.”
Whatever Dunn felt in the moment might never be revealed. Not to the professionals around him, and if to his closest loved ones, probably not beyond.
He takes a measured approach to life, as his job, Miller said. And Dunn will remember the crazy stories, but his fondest memories will not be about fires.
“At the end of the day, when I walk out the door, I will hope I’ve made a positive impact on this department,” he said. “I would like to be remembered as part of the positive change this department has seen in my career.”
That’s what makes his coworkers proud. And Luther Dunn would certainly feel the same about his son.
“He’s been nothing but an amazing example of what a great chief should be,” Miller said. “We have some great people coming behind him. But he has big shoes to fill, and it’s going to be a lot of work.”