John Morrison visited the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department with his Boy Scout troop when he was 15, joined the department a year later and subsequently rose to the top.
“I never really grew out of the childhood loving-fire-engines-and-ambulances phase,” said Morrison, who became an Eagle Scout and has served as the department’s chief since 2010.
For his efforts, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) on Aug. 8 bestowed Morrison with one of the organization’s two annual Fire Chief of the Year awards at the Fire-Rescue International conference in Atlanta.
The association and fire-apparatus maker Pierce Manufacturing since 1996 have given the awards to one volunteer chief and one career chief nationally. The career fire chief honored this year was James Clack of the Ankeny (Iowa) Fire Department.
“Chief Morrison and Chief Clack are exemplary leaders who embrace their work with professionalism, tenacity, compassion, and an ability to inspire others,” Jim Johnson, president of Pierce Manufacturing, said in IAFC’s press statement.
“It’s truly humbling to be recognized by one’s peers,” said Morrison, 39, whose award included a trophy and ring.
Morrison lives in Fair Lakes with his wife and son. He grew up in Vienna, attended Flint Hill Elementary School and The Potomac School in McLean for middle and high school, then earned a bachelor’s degree from Villanova University. He now works as a senior lead technologist for Booz Allen Hamilton.
After joining the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department, Morrison became an emergency medical technician (EMT), then in 2002 qualified as a firefighter. Since becoming chief, he has increased the department’s volunteers’ operational and training hours by 44 percent.
The department’s more than 60 volunteers are community servants who “deeply care about the mission of our organization and the Vienna community,” Morrison said.
The department, like other volunteer groups, struggles to retain members as they change jobs, have families and cope with life’s other challenges, Morrison said. As an extra incentive to stay, the department has adopted a Length of Service Award Program that gives small stipends to volunteers, based on years of service, when they qualify for retirement, he said.
Volunteer firefighters and EMTs undergo the same training as their professional counterparts and contribute by working night and weekend shifts, staffing large events and filling in while career units receive training, said Morrison, who likened the volunteers’ role to that of the military reserves.
Morrison developed a volunteer-management system that covers training, operational and administrative data; tracks hours, duty shifts, class registration, volunteer training and certifications, yearly physicals, equipment management and more. All 12 of Fairfax County’s volunteer fire departments use this single portal to share information, metrics and resources, IAFC officials said.
Since 2005, Morrison has served as a instructor at the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Academy, where he teaches everyone from entry-level recruits to personnel ranked Firefighter I and II.
Morrison also serves as planning-services chief for the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team (Virginia Task Force 1), which responds to disasters all around the nation and in foreign countries. His work with this organization has taken him to two dozen countries.
While much of that work has been for meetings and training (the Sun Gazette once tried to contact him for a story and reached him on his cell phone in Denmark), Morrison also has been on the ground following several large-scale disasters.
“Responses to sudden-onset disasters like the earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal are certainly among the most memorable” of his foreign experiences, he said.
IAFC officials were impressed by the Web-based portal Morrison created and manages for Virginia Task Force 1, which digitized paper processes for tracking absences and qualifications and building rosters. Numerous international and Federal Emergency Management Agency audits have cited the portal as a best practice.
Morris also represents the Americas Region on the United Nations International Search and Rescue Advisory Group’s Information Management Working Group.
Vienna Mayor Laurie DiRocco said Morrison deserved to receive such recognition from the IAFC.
“He’s a great community partner and community leader,” she said. “He does a great job of being a team player. He doesn’t just represent Vienna, but represents Fairfax County in other parts of the world.”
Vienna Volunteer Fire Department president Anthony Stancampiano said his and Morrison’s leadership styles complement each other. Morrison has continued to enhance his volunteer-management system, making life easier for the department’s leaders and volunteers, he said.
“Motivating and appropriately recognizing volunteers is extremely important,” Stancampiano said, adding the management system “allows for an at-a-glance way to analyze who your top performers are and who may need some encouragement.”
Morrison’s work with Virginia Task Force 1 not only has let him help people around the world, but opened up new possibilities for volunteer firefighters, he said.
“When he shares his experiences with us, we gain rare exposure to heroic missions,” Stancampiano said. “We can all learn from those experiences.”
Vienna Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary president Joan Dempsey recalled how Morrison’s eyes used to light up when he joined the department as a junior member. On one occasion, the department’s late chief, Bill Ellis, drove the chief’s vehicle to a call, but asked to return to the station in the medic unit with Morrison at the wheel.
When Morrison got back to the station, “he had the biggest smile and his eyes were huge like a kid in a candy store,” Dempsey said. “That enthusiasm for the fire service brought him to where he is today.”