Fire Chief Corey Smedley reflects on retirement

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Fire Chief Corey Smedley reflects on retirement
Alexandria Fire Department Chief Corey Smedley addresses the newest graduates of AFD Recruit School 54, marking the addition of 19 firefighter/EMTs to the Alexandria Fire Department on August 21. (Photo/ Louis Tinsley)
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By Wafir Salih | wsalih@alextimes.com

Chief Corey Smedley announced his retirement from the Alexandria Fire Department effective Jan. 12, 2024. James Schwartz has been appointed as interim fire chief – which will take effect following Smedley’s retirement – with the city actively seeking a permanent successor. 

During his eight-year tenure at the Alexandria Fire Department, Smedley led several key initiatives. He navigated the department through the COVID-19 pandemic, established the build-out and opening of a new Emergency Operations Center, brokered the collective bargaining agreement with IAFF Local 2141 and further integrated data analytics into the department’s operations. 

Smedley opened up to the Times about his tenure at the AFD, including being the first African American to serve as Alexandria’s Fire and EMS Chief. 

“The first of anything is a challenging role,” Smedley said. “You can ask anyone that’s done something for the very first time that’s never been done, it’s very challenging. Now you add the things that this country has had challenges with race relations, that just added another layer to it.” 

Smedley reflected on the numerous encounters with new team members who expressed how seeing him be the first African American to lead the department inspired them. 

“I can’t tell you how many times that I sat in the room interviewing someone new, whether it’s a sworn firefighter/EMT, or a civilian staff that said to me, ‘You gave me courage and inspiration, If you could do it, then I can do it,’” Smedley said. “They may not be the head of something right now, but I guarantee you that little bit of opportunity that I was involved to help them, that’s going to have dividends for years to come.” 

Smedley underscored the role he had in shaping AFD’s emergency management strategies and emphasized how he always spoke his mind when offering his perspective. 

“I think one of the things that my position and my role afforded me the opportunity was to be in the room, be in the room with the decision-makers of the city,” Smedley said. “When there are things that I think are being missed or I have an opinion that I think could make the situation better, I will speak up and give my side of the story.” 

Smedley’s career in public service began when he served in the United States Army Reserves in 1992. Inspired by his sister – who became a firefighter/EMT in Prince George’s County – he joined the same department in 1995. 

Rising through the ranks to deputy chief, Smedley spent more than two decades in the Prince George’s County Fire Department. 

Upon retiring as deputy chief from the Prince George’s County Fire Department in 2015, Smedley embarked on the next chapter of his professional journey. Later that year in December, he joined AFD and was appointed as the deputy chief for Homeland Security and Emergency Management. In this role, he developed a detailed and multifaceted understanding of not only the fire department, but also the city. 

“I was able to influence things, help out with processes, develop plans and build a cadre of camaraderie to help whatever came our way,” Smedley said. “When the opportunity [to be Fire Chief] presented itself, I had a lot of intel – not only about the department, but about the city.” 

Smedley’s Christian faith has been a cornerstone in his life. Every Sunday, he actively engages with the sermons, taking notes and extracting spiritual wisdom to incorporate into his life. Notably, a sermon where the pastor emphasized courage, anchored in the biblical passage of Joshua 1:6- 7, profoundly resonated with him just as he was about to step into the role of acting fire chief in Alexandria. 

“I went to church on that Sunday before I was called and my pastor’s sermon was [about] a courage to climb. Little did I know how much that sermon changed the trajectory of my career,” Smedley said. “That following Monday, I got a call from the previous chief to inform me that he was retiring, and I also got a call from the city manager’s office to report to their office. When I got there the next day, they informed me that they wanted me to go acting. … And now four-and-a-half years later, here I am talking about my retirement.” 

Smedley became acting chief in July 2019 amidst controversy over narrowing Seminary Road. He had the interim title removed later that year and was sworn in as fire chief in January 2020, just two months before COVID-19 swept across the nation. Smedley credited the knowledge he gained from his previous role in AFD as deputy chief Homeland Security and Emergency Management for helping him navigate the pandemic. 

“The great thing about the way my journey occurred is that I already knew the organization,” Smedley said. “I knew the players. I knew the processes. I knew what our strengths were, and I knew where our weaknesses were.” 

Smedley said he leveraged his relationships and leadership skills to navigate AFD throughout the pandemic. 

“[AFD], the city of Alexandria, was not the only one going through these pandemic challenges,” Smedley said. “We all used our relationships and our partnerships to figure out what are the things that we need to do to ensure that we keep our workforce safe [so] they’re able to accomplish the mission of protecting the community. 

“Things that we were able to do was look at our policies and procedures, look at different exercises we’ve gone through to address these kinds of crises, and we used those tools. The things that we didn’t have a plan for, we created them.” 

Although Chief Smedley is closing the chapter on his role as fire chief, he’s not going anywhere when it comes to public safety. 

“I am not done in my professional life,” Smedley said. “I’m going to continue to use my experience and talent in the future and I’m going to continue to work on the culture of this industry.” 

Smedley expressed immense gratitude for his tenure as fire chief. He revisited the pastor’s sermon on the courage to climb, drawing a parallel to his journey in the fire service. 

“[The courage to climb] is kind of a metaphor when you think about the fire service, because we use ladders, [we’re] constantly climbing ladders,” Smedley said. “That message in itself gave me the ability to just be blessed with this opportunity, and I’m just so happy that I had the opportunity to serve within the city of Alexandria Fire Department.” 

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