Black firefighter shares life lessons on and off job

PHOENIX – Phoenix Fire Capt. Courtney Jenkins is the former president of a black firefighters’ group. But he doesn’t focus on race.

“I see myself as a man first, and culturally second,” said Jenkins, 55. “I realize there’s only one race, and it’s human.”

The captain of Fire Station 57, nestled at the foot of South Mountain, Jenkins has had nearly three decades to craft his philosophy as a firefighter. He joined the Phoenix Fire Department more than a quarter century ago, just before he turned 30.

Firefighting wasn’t his original plan. He first applied at the Police Department but was turned down. However, they sent him to the Fire Department with a letter of recommendation.

Jenkins has worked thousands of calls, from medical emergencies to apartment fires. He never lets the fear get to him.

“We’re trained to show up and stay tuned into what we’re there to do. And that kind of helps you deal with the surrealism of whatever is going on,” he said. “With fire calls, I have a team to look out for, so that helps me alleviate my own anxieties because I’m looking out for someone else.”

Phoenix Fire Capt. Courtney Jenkins checks his equipment, including a breathing mask and air tank, at the start of every shift. (Photo by Chris McCrory/Cronkite News)

His philosophy of looking out for other firefighters led him in 1994 to join the J.W. Robinson Society, which supports black firefighters in Phoenix.

A story about Robinson, the first black Phoenix firefighter, drives Jenkins’ beliefs.

“When he first came to the station, he would sit out back to eat, and the other guys sat inside,” Jenkins said. “We’re talking about in the ’60s. Eventually, one guy would go out and sit with him and eat.

“The next thing you know, two guys are out there sitting with him and eating. The next thing is the whole crew is out there. And they finally looked at each other and went, ‘This is stupid, why are we sitting outside? We should come inside.'”

Jenkins said the story reminds him that basic humanity overcomes differences. And it inspired him to take a leadership role in a department where, he said, only 6 percent of firefighters are black.

Over the years, Jenkins served as treasurer, vice president and president of the J.W. Robinson Society. He also has recruited firefighters and worked in community outreach. Now, he wears the red hat of a fire captain and teaches exercise to department administrators.

He’s also a college student, working toward a master’s degree in exercise and wellness at Arizona State University. He plans to retire from public service in September but still help the public by teaching exercise and fitness classes. He’s not a man who stays still.

“I’m going to run until I can no longer run, then I’m going to walk,” he said. “Then, when I can’t walk, I’ll crawl. Then, when I can’t crawl, I’ll fall. But if I fall, I’m going to fall facing the direction of trying to do something.”

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