Art Price Paves the Way for Future Firefighters

Earlier this summer, Madison resident and Assistant Chief of Operations, Art Price, celebrated his retirement from the City of Madison Fire Department after over 3 decades of service. During his tenure, he helped usher in a new era of inclusion and diversity, making the City of Madison Fire Department one of our country’s leading examples of recruiting and retaining women and minorities in the profession.

It’s a role that Price may have been born to play, but he will admit that his Fire Department career, the events leading up to it and so many other things in his life may have been the happy result of being in “the right place at the right time.” 

Being in the right place at the right time has certainly been a repeat theme in his life.

That, and his unwavering ability to throw himself into a situation, willingness to “pick up and learn,” and his dedication to diversity and making things more welcoming and inclusive for those in the workplace.

Little did he envision while growing up with his grandparents in Newport News, VA that he would rise to the ranks of Madison’s finest.

Price says it all started with a conversation while playing basketball in the UW-Madison’s gym (“The Shell”) back in the late 1980s. Price had come to Madison as a college student and UW Football player in the early 1980’s, and later played pro-ball with the Atlanta Falcons. He reports that he “…chased the NFL dream” for a few years and returned to UW Madison for a graduate degree in Education Administration.  It was during this post-football period as he was considering his next steps while playing hoops at the UW Shell, when a group of fellow athletes and ex-football players on the court (including Bob Hansbro, Bob Wallace, Leotha Stanley and others) convinced him to apply for a position in the Fire Department.

He recounts with a laugh about the City Department application process at a time before internet and online applications. “I had to go to the City County Building and ask for a paper application.  When the Clerk handed me a pretty thick, multiple-page paper form, I asked her for 2 more.  She asked me why and I told her that I wanted to make sure that I got it right so that the final one was perfect.”  

Art finally completed the application and was selected for an interview in front of a 5-person panel. He was so focused on doing a good job that he actually arrived a full day early for the interview and by chance happened to meet and be introduced to the Fire Chief. On the official interview day, he sat for the panel interview by City and Department leaders.  He had prepared and was confident in his responses, but was surprised by the panel’s final question: “Where do you see yourself in 15 years?”  

He remembers: “I could answer about my plans for the next couple of years, but not 15 years into the future. So, I thought about it and said: “From what I’ve learned about your department and its training programs, hopefully in 15 years I will be in a leadership position like you; sitting on your side of the table.” He confirmed: “I want to be a Chief Officer, like you.”

That sealed the deal.

Price was accepted and with Kat Jackson (Madison’s first black female recruit) comprised the first entirely African-American class of recruits for the first few weeks at the Fire Academy. 

Towards the end of that exciting first year, Price found himself again in the ‘right place at the right time’ as he was approached to serve as one of the first African-American crew members of the famous “America’s Cup” sailing team. The Mayor and the City were excited to have Madison represented and warmly supported his participation.

Now despite his coastal birthplace, Price knew nothing about racing boats or crewing, but put his athletic prowess and get-to-know-how attitude to the fore as he and his crewmates trained with experts in Key West, San Diego and travelled the world. 

The end result?  His team won the 1992 “America’s Cup” – an honor and celebration that also happened to coincide with his own 30th birthday!

While the experience may have been a departure from the traditional Fire Department training, Art returned to Madison with new insights and transferrable skills, and threw himself into his work, reengaging with the Academy, learning about the Department, the community and serving a variety of Madison neighborhoods. 

Price wanted to experience all the roles that were required to become a good Lieutenant. He was a keen student of how the department worked and how to advance in the field. A helpful mentor advised “there is more than one path to get to where you want to go,” and asked him: “Why would you follow a tradition that traditionally didn’t want us here?”  Price recalls: “It was “deep stuff.” 

Art followed that advice and as his career developed, he eventually became a Training Officer, climbing the ladder within the division and using his own personal insights and knowledge of education and learning to reevaluate how the department did its training, updating it and making it more relevant for the staff. It was a success.

He grew as a Division Chief and eventually became a Recruit Coordinator, where he was able to use his insights and experiences as one of the early African American recruits to radically reshape and modernize how the Department advertised and recruited candidates, especially those from Madison’s underrepresented communities.

 “It was important that we were there (in the communities), and that candidates could ‘see themselves’ in the recruitment process,” he recalls. He expanded recruitment outreach to the radio, online and in person events where candidates lived. He remembers that the application pool jumped from 900 to 1,300 in that first year alone.

And that was the start of Madison’s push to become one of the leading examples of diversity in the country. An honor it celebrates to this day.

Price’s reputation as a champion for diversity and inclusion was tapped by the City of Madison Equity Committee, Civil Rights Committee and other initiatives. 

Thinking about his legacy, he thinks the Department is better off than when he first arrived, and that as a Chief Officer he “tried to create a space where people, especially women and minorities, felt comfortable and supported on the job.”

And what he has accomplished with his successful track record of improving recruits for the Department.

When asked what makes for an ideal recruit and what the field is all about, he explains: “The more I learned about the job, the more I realized that it was about people – about helping people.”

He continues: “It’s a service industry. It’s all about helping people on the job, in the community, and how we communicate and treat each other.”  

Adding: “I finally realized that I was doing the job that my grandparents had trained me to do:  Being that person that helps people and does what they can to make a difference.”

What’s next for Assistant Chief Art Price? 

Well-deserved time with family, again being at the right place and the right time. 

And maybe a bit later, looking to give back as an instructor, helping grow that next generation in the field by sharing his insights, ensuring they understand the seriousness of the job, and helping them stand up and be who they are. And that’s a mission that’s right for any place and any time.