Retiring fire prevention chief wears many hats

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
In more than four decades of service to the Air Force, James Palmer has fought fires, preached sermons, comforted toddlers and sung the National Anthem.

The New Orleans native retires as assistant chief for fire prevention at Keesler on March 3 with 24 years of civilian service at the same base where he ended his 20-year military career.

According to Keesler Fire Chief J.D. Donnett, Palmer epitomizes the Air Force's core values and has instilled those standards in subordinates through encouragement and unparalleled leadership.

"He's a force multiplier," the chief stressed.  "He supervised and mentored hundreds of personnel, and many now serve as assistant, deputy and fire chiefs around the world.  He was instrumental in the many awards the fire emergency services flight and the 81st Training Wing have garnered over the years."

Like many children, Palmer longed to be a firefighter when he grew up, especially after he watched a fire crew shooting water to douse a blaze across the street from his home when he was 9 years old.  But his dad was a preacher, so he grew up with a love of the Lord and gave his first sermon when he was 14.

Palmer was blessed with a beautiful voice and studied vocal performance at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  He provided a serenade service for other students and earned $5 each time he sang to help pay his college expenses.

After he enlisted in the Air Force, he attended a career fair during basic training.

"Back then, I was given three career choices - firefighting, photography or law enforcement," he recalled.  "Naturally, I chose firefighting."

Palmer crisscrossed the globe as an active-duty firefighter with assignments at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia; Yokota Air Base, Japan; Kunsan AB, Korea; England AFB, Louisiana; Cairo West AB, Egypt, and Rhein-Main AB, Germany, before arriving at Keesler in 1985.

He had one of his most disturbing experiences while at Langley - pulling a body from a charred structure.  At Rhein-Main, the base shared a runway with the civilian airport, and whenever there was an emergency, the military firefighters hit the flight line with their civilian counterparts.  Once a 747 had a rough landing and blew out its gears, but the first responders saved the 350 passengers on board, directing them to remove their shoes before sliding down the rescue chutes.

Palmer's co-workers in Germany dared him to take a job as a child care provider at a base facility that was open 24/7. 

"I was the only man and I worked with 52 ladies," he remembered.  "I was a firefighter on weekdays and a caregiver on weekends.  When the cook didn't show up, I was the cook, too."

After serving for five years as assistant chief of technical service for the Keesler Fire Department, Palmer retired in 1990 as a master sergeant.  He began his civilian career at Keesler by working for a year at the child development center until he was hired by the fire department as a fire inspector.

When Palmer was promoted to his current position, his focus became fire prevention instead of firefighting, but he still responded to emergency situations as needed. 

He became responsible for conducting fire drills and inspections for more than 320 structures on base.  His duties included approving construction paperwork for all new facilities, including alarm, sprinkler and hood and duct systems.  He oversaw the changeover of 40 fire suppression systems from dry to wet chemicals.

"Over the years, I've inspected well over 3,000 extinguishers on base," Palmer said.  "I issued hundreds of welding permits to base personnel and inspected their work and all shops to ensure all were in compliance with Air Force standards."

In addition to base facilities, he accompanied housing personnel who inspected 19 off-base hotels for government use.  He also briefed, inspected and conducted fire drills for day care facilities and family child care homes.

Palmer instructed many military and civilian inspectors on proper procedures and attended construction and renovation meetings and developed training materials for facility managers and other personnel.

Each October, he coordinated Fire Prevention Week events and the base's annual fire muster and ensured thousands of base personnel and their families were educated about fire prevention.

Over the years, Palmer has devoted much of his off-duty time to ministry in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  He completed a bachelor's degree with a double major in religion and business administration from William Carey College, as well as bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in theology from Slidell Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisiana.

"As a pastor, you have to have a firm foundation in business, as well as religion," he pointed out.  "You have to be able to connect with people of different backgrounds and attitudes.  They may love you or not, but it's your responsibility to minister to them."

Palmer plans to continue living in Gulfport after his retirement.

He also plans to devote more time to his wife, three grown children and seven grandchildren.

"I'm extremely proud that all three children finished college," he said.

Even though he's retiring, Palmer has left a lasting legacy at Keesler, according to Donnett.

"Chief Palmer's service has increased the combat capability of the Defense Department, the Air Force and Keesler Fire Emergency Services," Donnett remarked.  "He'll be truly missed around the fire station, but his efforts have ensured continuity of operations in fire protection for years to come."