Longtime firefighter ascends to the top of the ladder

By Emily Van Zandt Originally Published April 7, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated April 5, 2013 at 1:38 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Alan Laughy is the new fire chief in Jacksonville. For the past two years, he has served as assistant chief for the Little Rock Air Force Base Fire Department. Prior to his time as assistant chief, he served as a department captain.

— Alan Laughy can remember the exact moment he decided to be a firefighter.

The scene sounds more like a cut from a movie than a memory. Laughy was 17, and somebody pulled the fire alarm at his high school.

“I was out front and saw the engine company pull up,” he said. “One of the firefighters walked by me and nodded. It felt like it was slow motion.”

Laughy was blown away by how professional the crew was. And the shiny truck didn’t hurt, either.

“That was it. I had to be one of them,” Laughy said.

As a teen in New Hampshire, though, Laughy would have to wait until he was 21 to tackle his dream job. But his father, then a recruiter in the Air Force, had another option.

“He said that in the military, I could become a firefighter right away,” Laughy said. “A couple weeks later, I was in boot camp.”

Born in New Hampshire, Laughy and his family moved often for his father’s military job, including living in Vermont, Nebraska, Maryland and Turkey.

Although Laughy had been “neutral” about a military career as he was growing up, the idea of being a firefighter as soon as possible with the Air Force

appealed to him. Now, he can’t imagine his career path any other way.

In his job with the Air Force, Laughy rarely dealt with structural fires, but aircraft fires come with their own complications.

“They carry a lot of fuel, and that’s a huge, huge hazard,” Laughy said. “We don’t use water. You have to use an AFFF-grade foam.”

Laughy’s first few years of military service were busy. A tornado hit the first base he was assigned to, McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita. Then he had his first deployment during Operation Desert Storm.

“It was scary,” Laughy said. “It was the first major conflict we’d had since Vietnam. I didn’t know if I was heading for another Vietnam.”

Although he wasn’t deployed to a combat zone, Laughy was called on to be ready for problems as aircraft would come back.

“It was an older fleet,” Laughy said. “We’d have to go out several times a day.”

After his five-month deployment, Laughy returned to Wichita for three years. Then came an order he wasn’t ready for: moving to the base in Shemya, Alaska. The base is on a small island in the Bering Sea that is so far away from the U.S. it could be confused for a Russian outpost.

His first wife had just had a baby. Their first son, Jordan, was just 7 weeks old. The order said Laughy was to go unaccompanied.

“I didn’t want to go,” Laughy said of leaving his family. “I cried like a baby the whole way there.”

For the 13 months he was in Alaska, he was able to talk to his family about once a week. The weather was less forgiving: average winds of 50 to 60 knots and regular subzero temperatures.

“The hottest day I was there for was 49 degrees in the middle of summer,” Laughy said.

Once he left, he didn’t plan a return visit.

“Absolutely not.”

Laughy and his family moved to Plattsburgh, N.Y., where they lived for two years before the Air Force base there was shut down in 1995.

“The Air Force did a really good job of getting people assigned to their next spot,” Laughy said. “You could essentially pick where you wanted to go.”

After making a few phone calls, Laughy settled on Little Rock.

“I knew where Arkansas was, but I wasn’t sure where Little Rock was,” Laughy said. “I had to look it up on a map.”

But despite never having seen the state, Laughy decided it would be a good move for the family. He started as a captain in the fire department on the base.

Laughy worked in Little Rock a little more than four years before he left military life.

“There had been too many deployments and too much time away from my kids,” Laughy said.

He was offered a civilian firefighting job on an Air Force base in Texas and moved his family there for eight months before a captain’s position, also a civilian job, opened up back at the fire department at the Little Rock Air Force Base. It was an easy decision to move back.

“I knew I’d want to be back there even if it were a lateral move,” Laughy said. “The group at Little Rock Air Force Base are some of the most professional, good people I’ve ever met.”

In 2010, Laughy was promoted to assistant fire chief at the base, the title he held until he was named chief at the Jacksonville Fire Department.

“I left with a heavy heart,” Laughy said of leaving the base he’d worked at for so long.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to apply for a chief position,” Laughy said.

Laughy has been on duty as Jacksonville chief since mid-March and is already working toward several new goals for the department. Over the next few years, he’d like to see an increase in staff training and certification, along with purchasing new vehicles and equipment.

“We’re hoping to get a new engine within the next three years,” Laughy said.

With his history at the Air Force base, Laughy also hopes to see an increase in inter-departmental training with the firefighters at the base.

Though much of his time is spent getting settled into his new job, he still finds time to go camping and trout fishing several times a year. Laughy currently lives in Cabot with his wife, Kristina, whom he married in 2007. The couple will move to Jacksonville within the year.

Laughy’s job now is mainly behind a desk, coordinating the department, but he still gets out on the occasional call. And would he still choose to be a firefighter if he could do it all over again?

“Absolutely, I’d do it,” Laughy said. “There’s a camaraderie and a family atmosphere in the profession that I couldn’t do without.”

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

Associate Features Editor Emily Van Zandt can be reached at .

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