Charlottesville’s new fire chief, Andrew Baxter, knows a thing or two about putting out fires – including the kind with neither flames nor embers.
Like the time when his fire service team responded to a 911 call at the home of a bedridden, elderly man who was agitated, alone and filthy. Without missing a beat, Baxter, a 1994 graduate of the University of Virginia’s School of Nursing, readied warm washcloths, a clean adult diaper and gently set to work, his colleagues staring from the doorway.
Calm. Capable. Compassionate. Tackling burning, house-sized problems alongside smaller ones, like a clean set of undergarments, with poise, ability and humility.
"That’s the common thread across all these helping professions – EMTs, police, fire and rescue: the desire to solve that problem, no matter what it is. It’s often difficult, gritty, dangerous work, and they wouldn’t do these jobs unless they really cared.” -- Andrew Baxter, Charlottesville Fire Chief
Backed by more than two decades as a nurse and firefighter, Baxter’s care mantra is guided both by his first fire chief’s refrain – “the citizen defines the emergency” – with equal parts empathy and compassion stirred in, as well as the knowledge that small kindnesses matter profoundly.
“The feedback I get, the cards, e-mails and calls, very rarely is it a technical” skill that citizens are lauding, Baxter said. “No one says to you, ‘The way you rolled out that 200 feet of hose was astonishing.’ No. They say, ‘I was touched by what the firefighters did, with how they treated me.’”
And it’s his role as chief, he explains: to help service professionals understand the importance of “doing those things that are beyond the job description.”
The clarity of his professional approach today belies his rather accidental discovery of nursing as a 20-something. When Baxter – who, last September, became the city’s first fire chief who is also a nurse – arrived in Charlottesville in 1990, out of money and with two years of college under his belt, he applied for two jobs: one on the “weight and lift team” at UVA Medical Center, a sort of nursing assistant, and the other as a parking attendant.
Fate intervened, Baxter laughed, because “the weight and lift lady called me first.”
It was the job that changed everything. Shortly afterward, he enrolled in UVA’s School of Nursing’s undergraduate program, volunteering with the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad when not in class or practicum, ultimately becoming an intensive care nurse at UVA Medical Center in 1994. There he met his future wife, Barbara Baxter, then a nurse in the thoracic-cardiovascular intensive care unit. They had a daughter, Katherine, in 1997, and a son, Peter, in 1998, and the Baxters settled into small-town life until a position with Henrico County Division of Fire sparked his interest – and an offer.
He spent the next 20 years commuting back and forth to Richmond, assuming roles of increasing responsibility before ultimately becoming an assistant fire chief in 2012.
Today, Baxter’s at the helm of the Charlottesville Fire Department’s three-station, 91-member fire service team that each year responds to more than 5,600 emergency calls of nearly infinite variety, nearly two-thirds of which are non-fire-related. These days, he says, with the Affordable Care Act and accountable care organizations in place, firefighters and other emergency personnel across the country offering a new brand of primary care, addressing problems before they become acute, the critical set of eyes and ears between medicine, nursing, social services and a citizen in need.
In his early days as fire chief, he’s sharpened his focus on empathy and partnerships. Officers’ behavioral-expectations meetings focus not just on firefighting skills, but on demeanor and relationship-building. He’s invited UVA nursing students to practice their assessment skills by monitoring firefighters’ vital signs during practice burns, and he plans a series of workshops in partnership with UVA nursing faculty about stress first aid for emergency personnel.
But he’s got a lot to work with, he said, and is proud of a “talented” staff.
“Our guys get it,” Baxter said, “and that’s the common thread across all these helping professions – EMTs, police, fire and rescue: the desire to solve that problem, no matter what it is. It’s often difficult, gritty, dangerous work, and they wouldn’t do these jobs unless they really cared.”
With so many nurses in the mix – including daughter Kate, a first-year UVA nursing student, and wife Barb, a veteran RN, School of Nursing master’s student and part of UVA Medical Center’s 10-member Medical Emergency Team – dinner-table talk at the Baxters’ house is livelier than ever.
That’s just the way Kate – raised on a steady diet of her parents’ stories and TV hospital dramas like “ER” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” and who saw her first house fire at age 8 – likes it.
“I’d rather hear their stories,” she said, “than ask, ‘How was working in your office today?’”