Fire Chief Gene Necklaus to retire after 26 years of service
Danielle W. Kirkland
February 29 will mark the end of an era for Scottsboro Fire Chief Gene Necklaus, who has spent the past 26 years serving the city’s fire department in one capacity or another. That Thursday is slated to be his last day with the department.
Necklaus was no stranger to the fire department before he began his career there. His grandfather had served as a Scottsboro volunteer fire fighter in the earlier years of the force and his uncles and great-uncles were involved in fire departments in Cullman and Decatur.
While enrolled at Northeast Alabama Community College, the young Necklaus joined the fire department as a volunteer at the urging of some friends who were already volunteering.
“It was exciting for a 19-year-old to be a part of something like this, and the camaraderie was great,” Necklaus said. “Instead of doing the things other 19-year-olds were, we would hang out at the fire station.”
During his time as a volunteer, Necklaus decided he would try to make a career at the firehouse.
“I transferred all my classes to the EMS program at Northeast and learned as much as I could about the department and the service,” he said. “I applied for a job and was lucky enough to get hired full-time in May of 1998.”
After serving as a firefighter for six years, he was promoted to driver. From there he was promoted to lieutenant in 2006 and training officer in 2008.
“It just happened that people were retiring and positions were opening as I was becoming eligible to move up,” he said. “Thinking back, it was pretty bold to make a ten year guy the training officer, but if I remember right not many people wanted the job.”
When former Fire Chief Melton Potter retired, Necklaus applied to fill his position, but he did not get the job.
“Chief Chris White was appointed, and looking back, that was one of the best things that happened to me,” Necklaus said.
Necklaus admits that he had not been ready to take on the role of fire chief at that time.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but thankfully the city did,” he said “I learned and grew a lot working for Chief White.”
With a few more years of experience under his belt, Necklaus was eventually appointed fire chief upon White’s retirement in February of 2014.
His appointment didn’t exactly go as smoothly as he would have hoped. It’s an experience he can joke about now, though he said it wasn’t funny at the time.
“The council actually voted, in a public meeting, three to two against my appointment,” Necklaus explained. “There was confusion about the process of appointment. At the time it was the mayor’s appointment to make, but they took a vote nonetheless and that was the result. Taking an appointed position is scary in itself, because then you work at the pleasure of the elected officials. It’s much scarier when you realize you don’t have the support of the city council.”
That experience, though discouraging at first, only made Necklaus more determined to do a good job.
“It really made me consider if I even wanted to take the job, but it also made me work that much harder to do the right things and the best job I could,” he said. “Those three council members later apologized to me individually, and the council soon clarified the appointment process by ordinance so that wouldn’t happen again.”
Necklaus said the first stretch of serving as fire chief was a daily grind, spent defining the department’s mission and evaluating operating procedures.
“I think that was big, we spent face to face time with every person here, getting input and perspective on what our structure and operations should look like for them to be most effective,” Necklaus said. “The department wasn’t in bad shape, but the best time to fix the roof is before it starts leaking.”
Necklaus said it has been the people he works alongside that has made the job go smoothly over the years.
“I joke that this place runs itself, but in a lot of ways it does,” he said. “We have really good people throughout and they want to see the entire department be as good for our citizens as it can.”
Necklaus said having people who are passionate about he service they provide made the job easy in many ways.
“I never had to worry that the citizens were getting ignored or the job wasn’t getting done,” he said. “That gave me the room to spend time on grants and other funding opportunities, time to be involved in professional groups, and time to build relationships with other departments and chiefs.”
Having spent more than half his life at the fire department, Necklaus said he has accumulated numerous memories.
Some of the most fun times he can remember were in the years before rising to the ranks of fire chief … basically living at the fire house and responding to calls. It was during that time he formed a strong bond with those he worked alongside.
“When you’re doing that sort of work, responding to people’s real emergencies and experiencing stress and loss on that level, you have to develop ways to cope,” Necklaus said. “We built a bond and a collective sense of humor, or a distraction at least, that helped process those things. That bond is something you never want to lose.”
Though Necklaus believes those bonds will never break, they did change somewhat as he moved into an administrative role.
“All those folks you shared that bond with, well it’s still there but it’s different,” he said “Now you’re the boss. The old jokes and cutting-up don’t fit anymore. People listen to your words, and you have to be accountable for them. So you lose the old stress relievers and sounding board you had and have to learn new ways to manage new stressors. The education and training doesn’t prepare you for that.”
Necklaus recalls 2020 as the hardest year he ever spent with the department.
“Most of 2020 stands out as tough, starting with the marina fire,” he said. “I went to bed on a Sunday thinking I’d wake up and go to the office like normal, and before sunrise we’d lost eight citizens and were in the national media.”
Everyone was still processing the fire when the pandemic began to rage. Necklaus said COVID 19 heavily impacted the fire department.
“These folks are essential personnel, and we were having to figure out how to protect our people and still provide those services in the middle of a lot of uncertainty,” Necklaus said. “I really applaud how they managed that whole situation.”
2020 ended as it had begun … with more loss.
“Towards the end of the year, I lost two good friends. Retired Captain Robert Dawson passed that September. He was one of my mentors as I grew in the department and was still a valued friend,” Necklaus said. “Then in November we lost firefighter Dawson Beaird. I guess it is safe to say 2020 will haunt me forever.”
As his time as fire chief draws to an end, Necklaus said there is so much he is going to miss.
“I will miss being a part of the team that tries every day to make the difference like these people do,’’ he said. “I’m probably going to miss the relationships the most, on several levels. Locally these aren’t just co-workers, but they’re friends. We know each other’s families and kids’ names. We share good times and bad. I’ve also been fortunate to be involved in projects across Alabama and nationally that have built some great, and trusted, relationships.”
Necklaus said he will find a balanced way to stay involved.
“The next fire chief doesn’t need me hanging around getting in his or her way. This department is in a great position to accomplish and grow its mission, and I look forward to watching that happen from a safe distance,” he said.
Retirement from the fire department doesn’t mean Necklaus is going to the house and hanging up his hat for good. He is merely moving from one chapter of his life to the next.
“I always said I didn’t want to stay in this role beyond my effectiveness, but I also realized I would be the last to know when I stopped being effective,” he said. “I still enjoy the job, but I know I can’t do it and be good at it another 20 years.”
Though Necklaus established a steady career with the fire department long ago, he also worked to advance is college education throughout the years, beginning with an associates degree and then earning a bachelor’s degree. Necklaus set his sights on a different career path and began paving the way for his next endeavor.
“A law degree opens doors for the future,” he said. “Law had always been intriguing to me and the program at Birmingham School of Law allowed me to work full-time and complete classes on nights and weekends. It was a lot of windshield time, missed football Saturdays and lukewarm dinners, but it was something I enjoyed and it didn’t get in the way of what I needed to do for work. Thankfully my wife and family embraced it, or I never could have made it work.”
The future former fire chief doesn’t know exactly where this change will take him, but his first post-retirement task will be passing the bar exam.
“After that, I guess we’ll see where this path leads,” he said.