As a teenager, Chris Armstrong was so sure about what he wanted to do for the rest of his life that he traded in his senior year of high school for the fire academy and was working by the time his classmates graduated.
“My stepdad was a firefighter, so I grew up around firefighters and the fire station,” said the new chief of Littleton Fire Rescue, looking back on when he joined the Miramar Fire Rescue Department in Florida, where he grew up, and spent the entirety of his career — until now.
“It was just a natural progression for me,” he said.
Along the way, the 48-year-old rose through the ranks from paramedic to deputy chief of operations. He has earned a bachelor's degree in occupational health and safety and a master's degree in emergency-services management from Columbia Southern University. He is also a graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and received the Chief Fire Officer Designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence.
As deputy chief, he was responsible for 155 employees serving a population of almost 125,000. Here, he'll oversee the 170 employees who provide emergency-response services and life-safety education to the 220,000 citizens of Littleton, the Littleton Fire Protection District and the Highlands Ranch Metropolitan District.
“I'm excited to be here, and I'm ready to get to work and meet everyone,” he said Jan. 15, five days before his first official day at work, while in town to find a house and get a head start on reviewing LFR policies and procedures.
“I'm looking forward to continuing to provide what Littleton's always had, outstanding service and fiscal responsibility,” he said.
He's just as excited about Colorado's great outdoors.
“The first thing on my list is to get a mountain bike,” he said.
Tall, fit and tattooed with a firefighter motif on his right bicep, he's looking forward to fishing, hunting, snowboarding and riding ATVs with his family. His wife, Debbie, will join him here soon, but his daughter Morgan, 18, and son Kyle, 20, are both attending college in Florida.
Asked what he'll miss about the Sunshine State, Armstrong says not much.
“Florida was a good home,” he said. “I'd lived there since I was 2. But it's changed a lot. People aren't as friendly as I'd like them to be. That's what we like about Littleton, everybody's been really friendly.”
He's aware of the challenges LFR has faced of late, including low response times and organizational uncertainty. But Littleton City Manager Michael Penny believes Armstrong is the right person to lead the department back to solid ground.
“The hiring of a new chief comes with confidence that the current partnership structure is successful, cost effective and provides excellent service throughout LFR's service area,” said Penny. “Chief Armstrong will soon lead the department through a strategic-plan process that will serve as a blueprint for the future of LFR, and we are incredibly excited to work on this project with Chris and our partners.”
Despite recent studies suggesting LFR could benefit by merging with another department, Armstrong says he's comfortable with the current model and ongoing efforts to work collaboratively with other entities, like the recent decision to share dispatch software with others in the region.
“We need to find ways not necessarily to change things, but to improve them,” Armstrong said.
He added that part of that process will entail a lot of listening on his part, to the firefighters, the partners, city staff, command staff and community members. He describes himself as a hands-on chief who still likes to be out in the field with the troops, and he hopes to have a long second career in Littleton.
“As long as they keep giving me fire gear, I'm going to keep getting it dirty,” he said.
Armstrong's arrival is just about a month since his predecessor, John Mullin, stood somberly with his troops in the aftermath of the Arapahoe High School shooting.
“It's important to be there for one another,” he said. “You guys have had a lot of trying times, but at the end of the day, we're judged by how we treat each other. … Sometimes it takes a tragedy to bring people together.”