Academy fire chief departs after 28 years

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
The Air Force Academy's fire chief, a constant amid the changing faces here since 1985, departed the Academy Jan. 23.

Ernst Piercy, who oversaw the Academy Fire Department's effort to receive accreditation from the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, will join Navy Region Southwest as fire chief for 10 federal fire departments in six states.

"When you think about Air Force Academy firefighting and what's gone on, you think of this guy," said Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould during a special presentation at a 10th Air Base Wing commander's call Jan. 18, in which he gave Piercy an Air Force Meritorious Civilian Service Award.

Piercy's firefighting career began in 1978. As an Airman, he served at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., and Misawa Air Base, Japan, before separating in 1982. He rejoined the Air Force firefighter community in 1983 when he took a civilian position at Homestead AFB, Fla., then accepted a position at the Academy two years later.

"I was looking for an opportunity to expand my personal and professional growth," he said. "I figured, given the name of the institution and its location, it's got to be one great place to work."

His hunch proved true: Piercy called the Academy home for most of the next three decades.

"It's an incredible place," he said. "It's a wonderful institution filled with great leaders of character."

Piercy's positions during his tenure included station captain, assistant chief for training, assistant chief for operation and deputy fire chief. He served as the accreditation manager for the Academy Fire Department's CFAI accreditation in 2001, according to a biography on the Center for Public Safety Excellence's website, as well as its recertification 2006 and 2011.

Piercy has also supported Academy firefighters' participation in the Firefighter Combat Challenge. The Academy Fire Department first fielded a team in 2001 and has sense won numerous awards at world-level competitions.

"Not only is it challenging physically, but you have to be both mentally and physically fit," Piercy said. "If firefighters can participate in something that can improve them, we should definitely be involved."

But while the Academy's firefighters had faced tests on paper and on the Firefighter Combat Challenge course, 2012 held a challenge of a different sort: the devastating Waldo Canyon Fire. Academy firefighters spent two days helping battle the blaze near the Cedar Creek subdivision in southwest Colorado Springs before being recalled to protect the Academy's borders, where they limited the fire's damage to 12 acres along the southwest corner of the installation.

"It's the first fire I participated in of that magnitude," Piercy said. "The dynamics of the wildfire are not that unique: the extreme behavior we witnessed, folks in California deal with almost annually."

Piercy has no doubt done some homework on California wildfires: Navy Region Southwest includes the Golden State, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. As the region's fire chief, Piercy will oversee close to 500 firefighters and administer an annual budget of $52 million.

"It's an exponentially larger mission," he said.

Piercy credits the rank-and-file firefighters for making the Academy Fire Department successful.

"The fact that I'm in this position (as fire chief) makes me the luckiest guy on the planet," he said. "Either we recruited very well, or we're very lucky, because the quality of the men and women here is off the chart. They're dedicated not only to the fire service but to protecting this great institution. It's about the team for them, and it's about family."

He also cited the fire department's success as one of the reasons why he's departing.

"We received the Chief Master Sgt. Ralph Sanborn award for being the best fire department in the Air Force, then we received accreditation status for the third time," he said. "We showed our programs were credible, and the unit compliance inspection showed the Air Force that we were dialed in.

"When Waldo hit, we showed that not only do we look great on paper, we can also execute the mission. That's when I realized it was time for me to go," he added.

Gould also credited Piercy for the fire department's efforts fighting the Waldo Canyon Fire, saying the successful fire defense "didn't just happen."

The chief said he leaves with a heavy heart but that he looks forward to the challenges ahead of him.

"This is an absolutely unbelievable institution to be a part of," he said. "I remember when it developed the core values that the rest of the Air Force later adopted. I'm proud of this institution."