Siren call: Julian Taliaferro fired up by job

Striding past gleaming red fire trucks toward his office at department headquarters on Ridge Street, Charlottesville Fire Chief Julian Taliaferro exudes a certain, well, chiefliness. It's hard to believe this man– 6'4" with salt-and-pepper hair and heavy brows– was once called "the boy chief." But when he took the post back in 1971 at age 30, that's just how he was known.

"That was all right," Taliaferro chuckles, noting that he was the youngest fire chief in the country at that time. While he admits there was some resentment over his swift rise through the ranks– he came to Charlottesville as a firefighter in 1962, did a two-year tour in Vietnam, and then returned to the department for good– these days he has the respect of his 94-member force.

"He's very nice," says Anita Greene, one of the city's six female firefighters. "Anyone can talk to him."

Taliaferro– who pronounces his name as it's spelled rather than the Southern vernacular "Toliver"– has seen huge changes in the way fires are fought during his tenure. The biggest difference between today and 1971?

"Technology," he says. "The equipment is a lot safer."

Since 9/11, the gear has gotten even better. Using a $400,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security, Taliaferro updated his staff's breathing apparatus. Now, city firefighters have tanks with greater oxygen capacity, as well as computerized displays inside their face pieces showing how much oxygen is left. A second Homeland grant, Taliaferro says, will cover $6.2 million of the estimated $20 million expense of putting in an 800-megahertz radio system to link all emergency departments in Albemarle, Charlottesville, and UVA.

The fancy equipment will be put to good use.

With a growing population comes an increase in emergency calls; Taliaferro says the department sees a two- to three-percent increase each year. Of the estimated 6,000 calls the fire department responds to annually, five percent– 300– are actual fires. Most, says Taliaferro, start in kitchens or in bedrooms, where sleepy smokers have probably been careless.

But the fire department isn't limited to fighting blazes. Because firefighters are also trained in CPR, they go on nearly every rescue squad call as back-up.

And, in true Mayberry fashion, the Charlottesville Fire Department will still come out for the classic "cat in a tree" call. Snakes, bats, and water leaks will also bring the red trucks with sirens wailing.

"If you call, we'll come," says Taliaferro. "We try to take care of people."


Age: 63

Why here: Came to work in the Fire Department

Favorite hangout: Fire headquarters

Most overrated virtue: That I'm really easygoing

People would be surprised to know: I was drafted into the U.S. Army from the Fire Department in 1966.

What would you change about yourself: Not much

People find most annoying about you: Sometimes I give the impression that I'm not listening.

Whom do you admire: Senator John Kerry and Senator John McCain because of their military records

Favorite book: Stolen Valor

 Subject that causes you to rant: Telephone solicitors

Biggest 21st-century thrill: New technology

Biggest 21st-century creep-out: Voice mail

What do you drive? 1999 S-500 Mercedes

In your car CD player right now: George Jones

Next journey: Nashville

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Skipping school

Regret: None

Favorite comfort food: Peanut butter

Must-see TV: Nascar

Favorite cartoon: Bugs Bunny

Describe a perfect day: Sunny, 72 degrees, and no fires

Walter Mitty fantasy: Being a race car driver

Who'd play you in the movie: Mel Gibson

Most embarrassing moment: Locking the keys in my Fire Chief's car at a fire

Best advice you ever got: Have fun, and don't take yourself too seriously.

Favorite bumper sticker: Well behaved women rarely make history.

Fire Chief Julian Taliaferro