By Wendy Brown, U.S. Army Garrison Japan Public AffairsApril 12, 2019
CAMP ZAMA, Japan (April 12, 2019) -- Fire Chief Charlie Butler of U.S. Army Garrison Okinawa, Torii Station, didn't aspire to become a firefighter as a child, but once on the job, he found he had an affinity for it.
"Nobody likes to have injuries, fire damage, deaths or things like that, but when you experience those calamities, you're glad to have someone there to make things better," Butler said. "And as a firefighter, I enjoyed being that person that would help people and make things better."
After 39 years in the profession, Butler received the 2018 Army Fire and Emergency Services Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Military Firefighter Heritage Foundation, a private organization based in San Angelo, Texas, will induct him into their hall of fame next month.
Butler joined the Air Force in 1979 and did a 25-year career as an active-duty firefighter. He began working for the Army's former Installation Management Agency, now Installation Management Command, when he retired from the Air Force in 2004, and he has been working for the Army since then.
He has served as the fire chief at Okinawa since February 2016, but previously was the fire chief at USAG Fort Bliss, Texas, for nine years, and he intends to return there next year. Under Department of Defense rules, installations limit overseas civilian jobs to five years and hold employees' stateside jobs while they are away.
In addition, Butler has served as fire chief at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait; Manta Air Base in Manta, Ecuador; and Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, where he helped build a U.S. air base fire department at a civilian airport in support of cargo and fighter and bomber missions into Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.
Butler said he tells firefighters, "do things the way they're supposed to be done," and he has followed that advice throughout his career.
"If for some reason you can't do things the way they're supposed to be done, then change the way it's supposed to be done," Butler said. "What I mean by that is: We do things based upon laws, regulations, policies and commander's intent, but if for some reason we can't comply with those laws, rules, regulations and commander's intent, then we have to change those rules."
He also believes in making changes based on an unmet need.
In the days before organizations such as Army Community Service or Airman and Family Readiness, Butler said he didn't like leaving people in the lurch at fire scenes.
"When we got finished as firefighters, we would just kind of leave and the people would be there like, 'What do I do next? I don't have food; I have no furniture; I have nowhere to live; all my important documents are gone.' So I created a checklist that we would give to people that kind of told them, 'This is what you should do next,'" Butler said.
Butler said the biggest change he has seen in firefighting since he began in the field is in safety improvements.
"When I first became a firefighter, when I first went to my first fire station, there was only one breathing apparatus on the truck," Butler said, "and the crew chief, who is like the senior fire guy who is in charge of the truck, he said, 'That's our breathing apparatus right there. We don't ever use it.'"
Now, all firefighters wear breathing apparatus, as well as their own personally fitted mask, Butler said.
"No matter how much safety equipment you have or how safe you are following safety procedures, it's a very dangerous job--roof collapse, explosions, you name it," Butler said. "So firefighting is a very dangerous profession, but we do the very best we can to protect our firefighters and we have a saying: 'Dead firefighters don't save lives.'"
Butler said it is important to fight against complacency by constantly training.
When garrison officials hold meetings throughout the year for annual full-scale emergency exercises, Butler said he likes to tell them the fire department is always ready.
"I always go to these meetings and I say, 'Let's just have it tomorrow. I'm ready.' We have to be ready. In a fire department we cannot prepare a whole year for a single exercise," Butler said. "We have to prepare every single day and that's training, training, training."
Deputy Fire Chief Ralph Barone at USAG Okinawa nominated Butler for the Army award, and because Butler was initially reluctant, he had to talk him into giving him information for the nominating document.
Barone said he nominated Butler because he has known him since 1982 and believes he is one of the best in the field of Army firefighting.
"He's a consummate professional and a visionary in the fire and emergency services career field," Barone said. "He is personally responsible for many of the programs that govern Army Fire and Emergency Services today. There is truly no one more deserving of the Army Fire and Emergency Services Lifetime Achievement Award than Chief Butler."
John Staub, chief of Army Fire and Emergency Services, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management, said he has been a DOD firefighter for 40 years, and has known Butler since the early 1990s when they were both active-duty Air Force firefighters.
"Chief Butler is the model for integrity, honesty and ethics," Staub said. "He has always demonstrated these traits, and leads from the front by example. His dedication to duty and unselfish service to our nation and communities goes a long way in setting the bar high for others to emulate. He mentors current and future leaders, with continued excellence always in the forefront of his thoughts, words and deeds."
Butler is most deserving of the lifetime achievement award, Staub said.
"He has served not only at the installation level, but on (headquarters) staffs as well," Staub said. "I rely on his honest opinion and appraisal, and when coupled with his strategic vision, it affords me the best of both worlds. (He's) a superb fire chief with strategic vision that stretches across the enterprise that I can always reach out to for assistance."