James Sebastian’s Firefighting Career Marked by Integrity and Sacrifice
Writer / Andrew Toy
James Sebastian’s first thought of firefighting and becoming a firefighter was when asked by a teacher at a young age. “I’m going to go around the room and ask each of you what you want to be when you grow up.”
Like in any preschool class, the answers to the teacher’s question varied among the children – an astronaut, a veterinarian, a sheriff. When the teacher got to four-year-old James Sebastian, his answer was different. He said, “I can’t tell you.”
“Is everything all right, James?” she asked, a little perplexed.
“I have to tell my mom first,” he responded.
True to his word, he came home and told his mom, Mable, what he wanted to be. He received her blessing, and reported to his mom after school the next day that his teacher said she had no doubt in him.
Mable knew as well as anyone that fireman blood ran through the family. Mable’s father, Jack Huckleberry, was in the Louisville Fire Department, so it had been ingrained in him from the start.
That young boy, who followed his grandfather into the fire station with an oversized helmet wobbling on his head, just retired on August 1 from 33 years of service with Jeffersontown Fire Department Station 1.
Sebastian says the gratitude and happiness he feels for the opportunity to serve Jeffersontown is foremost in his mind.
“On a scale of one to 10, he was a 15,” says Tom Ruckriegel, a retired fireman who worked with both Sebastian and his grandfather.
Sebastian got emotionally involved with the victims of accidents and horrific tragedies.
“He would comfort them, and made them feel better about going through something like that,” Mable says.
Sebastian’s wife Lorrie says the sacrifices he made through the years were ultimately worthwhile.
“It took a lot of patience,” she says. “We had to stop what we were doing to make runs, and he had to drop everything and go. We were out and about, he was fixing dinner, or we were sitting down for dinner – so there was a strain. Yet, I’m very proud of him for what he’s done and what he’s accomplished.”
Though Sebastian couldn’t always put his family first, sometimes missing his daughter’s tee-ball games or Christmas celebrations, his family always told him to try and push himself as hard as he could.
“Be a perfectionist at your current job, and then the next position will become available,” he says, by way of advice to rookie firefighters. “That usually means that if you’re a good firefighter, you’re going to be a pretty decent sergeant, and so on. Before you know it, 33 years are here and you’re done, and you’re wondering where they all went, so make sure you enjoy every day.”
Firefighting wasn’t his only accomplishment at Station 1. It’s important to rewind the video footage and look back at the grainy film of 1987, when Sebastian was working as an electrician and volunteering as a fireman. The electrician gig served him well as he learned about building construction, electrical services, and sometimes even the causes of fires.
From there he made the switch to full-time firefighting and worked his way steadily through the ranks, from firefighter to engineer, lieutenant, captain, and finally deputy chief.
His accomplishments didn’t stop there, however. Sebastian served the Local Emergency Planning Committee, as a board member on the Jeffersontown Fire Department as a firefighter representative, and as a board member for the Honor Flight Kentucky organization.
He played a big role in successfully obtaining an Insurance Service Office Class 1 Rating for the Jeffersontown Fire Department, as well as a certificate of need for advanced ambulance services for the community.
During his career Sebastian also implemented a successful evaluation of district resources such as stations and firefighting equipment. He helped reduce district expenses related to maintenance and supplies. He established stronger communication between the board of trustees, command staff, community leaders and firefighters. Sebastian also created and implemented standard operating procedures, a handbook, medical protocols and a ride-up training program.
For his retirement party, the department gave him an ax, which symbolizes strength. It is also one of the first tools that a firefighter grabs before heading into peril. He was also given a helmet and a box containing all of his badges. Mayor Bill Dieruf was present at the ceremony, and spoke about Sebastian’s accomplishments and his service to the community.
Sebastian says the things observed on the job that happen to other people, including loss of life, are often very difficult to deal with. Nevertheless, he is quick to flip to the other side of the coin.
“There is just as much, and maybe even more, of the good stuff that’s happened too,” he says. “When you help a family get out of a situation, or help them find some resources to find another place to live, or deal with a death, there is plenty of the good stuff that also happens – but sometimes it’s the bad stuff that sits in your head.”
After 33 years of work, Sebastian has nothing but good things to say about his community and the fire department that resides there.
“I think that Jeffersontown is the best department out there,” he says. “I love the people I work with. I think they’re the best in the business. I believe it’s never one person that makes or breaks an organization. The reason I got to where I am, or where I did get, is because of the assistance of other people who made my job easier. It wasn’t always just me. It was sometimes a combination of people who helped me achieve what I got. I think the organization is going to do great with the personnel that is there.”
As for how he’s going to spend his retirement, the question evokes a smile.
“I’ve got a lot of make-up to do with my family,” he says “My goal is to spend time with my family and enjoy being with them. I’ve got two grandkids that I love dearly that are everything to me. To me, that’s retirement.”
He vows that he’s not done working in some capacity.
“I’m going to do something else – I don’t know what,” Sebastian says. “I do have a lot of payback I’ve got to do for my family, for all the things that they’ve had to deal with in my 26 years of paid service, and 33 years as a whole.”
Rest well, Deputy Chief Sebastian. From all of us here in Jeffersontown, we’re grateful to you and your family for your dedication and service.