Judkins plans retirement
Published 9:18 pm Wednesday, December 23, 2015
For 15 years, Capt. James T. Judkins has shined the brightest when the weather was the nastiest.
As the city’s emergency management coordinator, he beat the drum of preparedness under the sun all year long. But he was rarely seen in the spotlight until a tropical storm, tornado or other calamity descended upon the city.
“I learned a lot of things from those incidents,” he said. “Everything is a learning experience.”
Email newsletter signup
Judkins is preparing to retire on Dec. 31 after more than 36 years total in service of the Suffolk Department of Fire and Rescue. He’ll be 68 in January.
He came into the department later than most, even though he knew what he wanted to do for a career from his earliest days.
“What kid doesn’t dream about being a firefighter?” he said. “I’m very blessed to do things a lot of people just dream about.”
As a youngster growing up in Hall Place, he followed his father’s footsteps and was a member of the Nansemond-Suffolk Volunteer Rescue Squad.
But when he turned 18, he learned the fire department didn’t hire until age 21.
“I bumbled and stumbled from job to job” in the ensuing years, Judkins said. In 1979, he buckled down and finally was able to join the fire department.
For 22 years, he was on the front lines of fighting fires in Suffolk. He served as a firefighter, driver/operator and company officer, stationed in the old Morgan Street station. He saw the department grow from 44 to more than 200, accompanied by its move into providing emergency medical services.
“That’s one of the things we do more than firefighting now,” he said. “It’s been really rewarding. When you administer a drug to a diabetic and he comes from being unconscious to wanting to know what’s going on almost instantaneously, when you hook up a defibrillator and get somebody’s heart beating, that’s pretty powerful.”
He was sitting at Station 3 one day in 2001 when then-Chief Mark Outlaw came in and asked him to step into the emergency management role, about which he knew next to nothing.
“It’s been uphill ever since,” he said. “A lot of good people across the area helped me, and now they’re gone. I’m trying to pay it back to those coming on board.”
It’s easy for Judkins to pick out the top three weather-related incidents he’s helped the city manage: the April 2008 tornado, September 2003’s Hurricane Isabel, and Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Although Floyd came before his official emergency management role, he worked as the public information officer in the emergency operations center during the storm. He recalled taking numerous phone calls from out-of-state relatives of Franklin residents, which was swamped and lost all communication. Firefighters were able to check on residents and report that they were OK.
In fact, a news helicopter checking on the southwestern portions of Suffolk at the behest of the fire department was how folks outside of Franklin learned how badly the town had been hit, Judkins said.
“Franklin was in a lot worse shape than we were,” Judkins said.
In his role as public information officer, Judkins showed up at every structure fire, no matter the day or hour, to answer questions from the media and neighbors until 2008, when public information was centralized in a single city office.
He was one of the first public information officers in the area to begin providing pictures to the media. Old-timers still remember that, Judkins said.
“You never know when you’re going to make an effect on somebody in your career,” he said.
Judkins doesn’t expect to lose much time to idleness in retirement. He cares for his 90-year-old mother and has six children and stepchildren and seven grandchildren, most of whom live locally. He’s also active in his church, Suffolk Christian Church, and treasures his good health.
“The years and the Lord have been mighty good to me,” he said.