“Small things – big differences.”
Being a business owner, a stand-in for a photo session for Annie Leibovitz, earning titles as a MMA fighter, and becoming both a firefighter and a police officer, Justin James has a more life experiences than most will ever have, and has been creating his own unique path forward. He has also been able to combine those experiences into a list of “cool jobs” many kids dream of doing when they are young.
When he speaks to youth which is a regular part of his role as Fire Chief for the Council Bluffs Fire Department, he always shares the same message. “You never know how the small things will affect your life and make a big difference later. What you want to do or be is achievable, but it will take hard work, and some sacrifice. The big things come at a cost.” It was that premise that led him to the role he now holds.
As a little kid he had very different aspirations; he was going to be a fighter pilot. He attended University of Nebraska Omaha and enrolled in the aviation program, and the PLC Air Marine Corps program. He worked toward a degree in aviation as well as Public Administration. He received his private pilot license and was preparing for his commercial license test when he started working at the Ft. Calhoun Nuclear plant as Security/Fire personnel. The training received there prepared staff for worst case scenarios, unknowingly preparing him his next role testing for the Council Bluffs Fire Dept. At the time he took the test, James shares, “I honestly didn’t know a thing about the test; my boss was taking it so I took it along with him.” He was hired on to the department in September, and turned 23 just a couple of months later. He was busy the first few years with the department. He was a full-time firefighter, owned a landscaping company, and was a professional fighter. He held a variety of MMA titles, having won local titles with Victory Fighting, the Rocky Mountain Lightweight Champion, Ring of Fire, Extreme Challenge and ultimately landing a UFC contract. It was not uncommon for him to train two or three times each day in a variety of martial arts. In 2008 he was promoted and became a Captain in the Department, working in the Fire Marshal office. It was this change in schedule that resulted in leaving the ring as a fighter, ending his MMA career. In 2009 he completed the Law Enforcement Academy and also became a Police Officer. He was a “fireman arresting people”, a new role for the City of CB. While training in MMA he trained with many law enforcement officers and continued to forge relationships across departments helping to create a rise in the culture of respect between departments. During the phase of his career, James also led the Council Bluffs Professional Firefighter’s Union Local #15. He spent 5 years doing “the coolest things of each job every day” working with HAZMAT teams, Confined Space teams, and Law Enforcement Investigations. He became Assistant Chief in 2013. “When I was deciding what the next step would be, I asked my brother, who usually gives good advice, for his opinion on the job. He told me, ‘If you want to make the most difference you need to be the boss’ ”, and in 2014 James became the Fire Chief for the City of Council Bluffs. He is quick to say, the job is an honor. “To be able to lead such a great group of people is on an honor. The level of customer service, professionalism and community involvement is amazing.”
When presented with the question, “What was one of your favorite memories from high school?, there was an instant smile, followed with “Hmm, which are the ones appropriate to share” showing he truly enjoyed his high school years, There was also a quiet mention of a maybe hosting a few parties. “I loved Abraham Lincoln, I still feel it was some of the best years of life, I would go back in a heartbeat. I made lifelong friends at AL.” James originally attended a smaller school, and transferred to ALHS as a freshman, before open enrollment was as prevalent. He is still an advocate for the larger school size. “There are so many more opportunities to interact with different people. There is a networking that just doesn’t happen in smaller groups. There is so much to offer, advantages of resources, opportunities and dynamics.” He recalls his years as a wrestler, and credited his coach, Clark Allen for being a great influence on many of his teammates. It was the interactions with Mr. Fred Maher that he remembers best, and there were many according to his stories. When the call home would reach James’ mom, she would answer with a “Hi Fred, what did he to do today”. “Mr. Maher is a great individual, he was always fair and he got me through. He would always shake his head when I was with the Fire Marshal’s office and visit the school – I am sure questioning how I went from that kid in high school to working for the Fire Department”, James shares.
In reflection about the changes in Council Bluffs since graduation, Justin is proud of his alma mater and the city. “Council Bluffs is a unique city, with an amazing amount of history. The changes in the school district over the last 10 years are impressive” he says. The facilities, the re-energized pride, the new construction; all provide something to be proud of as an Alum. He is excited about the years to come as well. “The Riverfront project which could be one of the biggest project s in Council Bluffs history, the ability to redevelop areas like West Broadway, the casinos and the Iowa West Foundation, the speed of current progress, all put Council Bluffs in a great position for the future”.
As he looks to the future, it is clear it will be a further collection of the little things that will continue to make a big difference in Council Bluffs.