Josh Graham’s career path began awhile ago as a kid going on ride-alongs with his firefighting grandpa.
And now, the torch has seemingly been passed on to Jaxon, Graham’s 11-year-old son. Jaxon has regularly accompanied his dad to the Arcade department to clean or roll the hose and other tasks. In other words, “he’s right there with us,” Graham said.
The father-son team intends to be a firefighting duo for some time to come no matter where they are.
“He’s got his Arcade Fire Department jacket. He gets a weekly allowance if he does his chores, and he likes us to put that on Amazon; he’s been ordering medical equipment to build his own EMT bag,” Graham said Tuesday at his office at Batavia City Fire headquarters. “I plan on seeing myself retire from here.”
Graham, a Corfu native now living in Arcade, has been in the fire business for more than 20 years, ever since he volunteered as a firefighter at age 16. He was hired by the city as fire chief, and has been learning his new role for about a month now.
Equipped as an assistant fire chief with Arcade, associate degrees in Strategic Operations Management and in Fire Science and a bachelor's degree in Fire and Emergency Management, Graham reached the rank of Senior Master Sergeant in the military, and held the position of Deputy Fire Chief with his Reserve Flight.
The 37-year-old was only hesitant about one thing when taking his current administrative position.
“If there was a reservation about taking this position, it was probably that I love riding in that truck on calls. Where I came from, the fire chief and the deputy chief did not respond to calls, unless there was something catastrophic. This position is kind of unique in that I can go to whatever calls I want to go to,” he said. “So even though I'm not riding in the fire truck, I can still respond to the calls. I'm still assisting on the scene and things like that.”
That doesn’t mean he can skimp on administrative duties, and he has been working on paperwork, schedules, new and future hires, trainings, and — tis the season — the city’s annual budget.
City Manager Rachael Tabelski has been knee-deep in the budget process, she said, beginning to meet with department heads to find out what their needs are, and what can and cannot be included in the overall financial plan. For Graham, he is determining what equipment, materials, and other costs will be part of his roughly $4.4 million budget this next year.
“So we're at the very beginning of all that, but the city manager has been great," he said. "And anything that our initial talks, that she and I discussed, and something that we need is justified, she's been very understanding of that stuff. So, there's a balance … it's just finding that balance that allows us to continue to operate efficiently and serve the community while not going crazy.”
Renovations have been slated for the Evans Street station, including at the one bathroom available to the men and women personnel, he said. Work has just been put out for bid, so that’s likely a project that will go into next year.
So what is it about the role of firefighter — and chief — that has drawn him in so deeply?
“I've always wanted to be a firefighter since I was a kid. I just like the thought of helping people. And 9/11 had a lot to do with it as well,” he said. “I was a junior in high school when 9/11 happened … that made me want to serve my country, so I figured I would join the military as a firefighter.”
He, his wife Carrie and Jaxon live in Wyoming County and will continue to do so until Graham has passed his six-month probation period. After that, the family will move to the city, per residency requirements. The new chief is also a state fire instructor, which means teaching classes periodically in his home county.
While much has remained the same when responding to fires and accidents, two things have changed, he said: more lightweight structures that don’t hold up to flames and electric vehicles. EV batteries are "super hot" and can burn for hours. Although he hasn't encountered such a situation here yet, it's something to be aware of and trained for, he said. A typical vehicle fire may use up to 1,000 gallons of water, versus 20,000 to 30,000 for electric vehicle batteries, he said.
When asked what moments hang with him from being on the job, he first thought about the survivors: to be there and calm them down and help them to get through the incident. He also remembers saving people who were in cardiac arrest — dramatic saves that don’t often happen when people are having heart attacks, he said.
Six new hires and a transfer from Jamestown have meant more training and initiation of personnel. But he doesn’t believe in fixing what isn’t broken, and the city fire department is in great shape, he said.
“When I came in, I saw that they were doing a fantastic job,” he said. “My goal is to maintain the same level of proficiency and level of care that’s been provided for quite some time.”
His induction has been more about meeting people, learning about what and who is at the station, and throughout the city, including Tabelski, the Public Works Department personnel and city police, he said.
To say he’s been busy is an understatement.
“I told someone I think I’ve eaten lunch three times since I started,” he said with an unreluctant smile. “It’s absolutely a lifestyle, for the last 20 years.”
The department is climbing its way back up to full platoons, with an expected total of 36 people in the next year. Retirements, transfers, and — yes, still — COVID issues have bogged down hiring practices for the last couple of years, he said. He's ready to lead.
"I always say I have a servant leadership style," Graham said. "My job is to make sure that everybody that works here has everything they need to do their job, and that would include their morale, it would include the equipment, training, anything that may come up as a hindrance to them being able to do their job and serve the community is something that I need to handle."
In his free time, Graham enjoys hunting deer and turkeys, and camping and riding ATVs with his family.
Photo: Newly appointed City of Batavia Fire Chief Josh Graham at the Evans Street station. Photo by Howard Owens.