Yarbrough’s timeline with Gainesville Fire Department
1984: Hired as a firefighter
1992: Becomes a fire truck driver
1997: Joins the fire marshal’s office as fire inspector
2002: Appointed to fire marshal
2008: Becomes deputy fire chief
2013: Hired as fire chief
At a young age, Jerome Yarbrough had to make a choice. He could indulge in delinquent acts and continue in his “curiosity” as a boy and head down the “left” path. Or he could travel on a higher road on the “right” path and become a successful person.
Luckily, a few mentors at what was then the Gainesville Boys Club guided him to make the “right” decision.
“Jim Smith was the executive director, and he made the point to give me some fatherly advice,” said Yarbrough, whose own father left when he was about 10 years old. “He said ‘You can go down this path ... or you can go down this other path and be successful.”
That piece of advice hit home for Yarbrough after visiting the Gainesville Fire Department that same year. He saw the respect and gratitude firefighters received and decided he wanted the same.
“That calling hit me,” Yarbrough said as he sat in his office inside the fire station on Pine Street in Gainesville. “And it stayed in my head.”
More than 40 years later, Yarbrough has risen from an entry-level firefighter in the 1980s to becoming Gainesville fire chief in 2013. Last month, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County honored him with its Helping Hands Award for his contributions to the club.
The award sits in his direct line of sight when he is seated at his desk.
“When I found out I was getting the award I asked ‘Are you sure?’” Yarbrough said recounting the conversation with Joyce Wilson, vice president of development and marketing for the Boys & Girls Clubs.
“There is no one more deserving,” she said.
Abb Hayes has served on the Boys & Girls Clubs board of directors with Yarbrough since 1998, and agrees.
“Jerome is a guy who leads by example,” Hayes said. “He is present in the club on a daily basis and has interaction with the children.”
Hayes, an attorney with Hulsey, Oliver & Mahar, said Yarbrough has chaired every committee with the Boys & Girls Clubs at one point and also has served as a board president.
“He is raising money. He is recruiting board members. He is one of the key people who is taking care of the grounds,” Hayes said. “Jerome is a huge figure with the Boys & Girls Clubs.”
INFLUENCED BY THE BOYS & GIRLS CLUBS
Yarbrough’s attachment to the club started in his youth.
Born in 1959, he was the second of four children living in the housing projects of Gainesville. With his mother working full time, Yarbrough and his brother started attending the Gainesville Boys Club. His sisters went to the Girls Incorporated of Northeast Georgia. (The two clubs merged in 1998.) While there, he learned the traits needed to succeed in life.
“They instilled values in me,” Yarbrough said, noting those same lessons are taught at the clubs today. “The staff get very involved and give (the children) direction and focus.”
The mission of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County is to inspire and enable all young people, especially those who need it most, to realize their full potential as productive, responsible and caring citizens, according to its website, www.boysgirlsclubs.com.
The clubs accomplish this through programs focusing on academic success, good character and citizenship and a healthy lifestyle, said Chelsea Clark, event marketing and volunteer coordinator with Boys & Girls Clubs.
“We think those are the three areas to focus on, because it will lead to great futures,” she said.
“The word ‘no’ is not in the vocabulary of a lot of parents these days,” he said. “But at the Boys & Girls Clubs, it is.”
Yarbrough explained how children there are given boundaries, guidance and direction. He feels so strongly about the lessons he learned as a child, his two stepchildren attend the clubs.
“It’s a tribute of my trust for the organization,” he said.
The clubs also trust Yarbrough as a role model for their children. He is featured in a YouTube video called “From the Club to Fire Chief,” which is an endorsement of the clubs’ efforts.
“I hear from all kinds of clubs all across the country who say ‘We use your video,’” he said. “It brings (me) gratitude knowing that I did due diligence and I am a product of the Boys & Girls Clubs.”
TRAINED BY THE U.S. ARMY
After graduating from Gainesville High School in 1977, Yarbrough enlisted in the U.S. Army. After basic training, he volunteered for the medic program to veer away from the infantry division.
“I wanted to do something more than combat or tactical,” he said. “So it was either get (medic training) done or go to the infantry.”
Yarbrough “got it done” through training and working on the job.
“I worked at a hospital in Fort Seal, Okla.,” he said, noting his job had unexpected bonuses. “I was a private just starting out and (soldiers) gave you respect. They trusted the medics and the cooks.”
Yarbrough remained in the Army for three years but did not think he wanted to make it his career.
“I still didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said, explaining he still dreamed of living in his hometown and being a firefighter. However, he did not know if his goal was attainable.
Thus, Yarbrough found a compromise. He enlisted with the U.S. Army Reserve before being honorably discharged from regular service. Reservists are required to serve one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer with the Army.
The decision allowed Yarbrough to maintain his ties with the Army while seeking full-time employment with the Gainesville Fire Department. Ultimately, it was a good decision. Yarbrough put in 26½ years as an Army Reservist and retired as a staff sergeant.
PUT ON A PATH TO FIRE CHIEF
With his full-time Army service behind him in October 1981, Yarbrough set his sights on becoming a firefighter in Gainesville. But it was not going to be an easy thing. His application was not accepted on the first try.
Lucky for him, then-Chief Sug Hamrick was in his corner.
“He told me to ‘Hang in there and just keep applying,’” Yarbrough said.
In April 1981 while in his 20s, he earned a job as a detention officer with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office. But Yarbrough continued applying with the fire department despite a waiting list.
“No one ever left the fire department,” he said. “We didn’t have the turnover like we do today.”
Finally, he was accepted into the fire department in July 1984.
“It was good (because) that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I had set a goal to one day be chief and I knew that (Gainesville is where) I wanted to work and wanted to be.”
His experience as a medic in the Army helped Yarbrough succeed in the fire department.
“The city manager wanted all the firefighters to be EMTs (emergency medical technicians),” Yarbrough said. “So I was the first one to go. Now it’s a requirement. To become a firefighter, you have to be an EMT or you go get training to be an EMT … because 60 percent of calls are EMS calls.”
His career path from EMT and firefighter steadily progressed. After eight years as a firefighter, Yarbrough became a driver in 1992 and climbed behind the wheel for five years. His next step was to the fire marshal’s office as a fire inspector in 1997. Then in 2002, he became fire marshal, enforcing codes and investigating fires.
Six years later, he acquired deputy fire chief status. In March 2013, he was hired as chief.
“I am confident Jerome will do an excellent job as chief,” then-Gainesville City Manager Kip Padgett said in a Times story when the move was made. “His experience and knowledge of the fire department and involvement in the community made him the ideal candidate.”
Yarbrough plans to stay until he “knows it’s time to stop.” But he says that time is not soon.
“(Firefighting) is a calling,” he said, explaining how everyone is not able to handle gruesome crash scenes and overwhelming heat and exertion required to battle a blaze. “It takes a special kind of person to do stuff in public safety to succeed.”
And Yarbrough is happy to be one of those lucky people.
“I love helping people and knowing that I made a difference,” he said “And I get a chance to give back.
“None of us up here is rich, but we are rich in our hearts.”
And that makes him a success.