ARFF Captain Samuel Gollapalli Found His True Calling

Thirty years ago, Samuel Gollapalli graduated Temple University with a Business degree. It was a proud accomplishment for the young man who came to the United States from India in 1984 in pursuit of an education. The timing, though, was terrible. With the country in a recession, Gollapalli struggled to find work in his field of study. Disappointed but not discouraged, he realized he needed to shift focus to something that was less vulnerable to the whims of the economy. He had an epiphany one day while watching reruns of the popular 1970s drama Emergency!, which revolved around paramedics Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto of Squad 51 of the Los Angeles Fire Department.

“I was at home, out of work watching reruns of Emergency. Johnny and Roy always had something interesting from day to day,” Gollapalli recalls. “Their work was both mentally and physically challenging, and emergencies happen regardless of what the economy does. A job with a high level of personal satisfaction and stability. It’s a win-win.”

So, inspired by the profession of a couple of TV medics, Gollapalli, the former business hopeful, became a Philadelphia Fire Department paramedic in 1995. Twenty-five years and a varied work experience in the PFD and several promotions later, it’s clear Gollapalli’s instincts about the emergency services were on target.

Starting out as a medic, Gollapalli eventually moved over to firefighting while climbing the ranks to Captain. In January, he was Captain of Ladder 9 in Center City when he was assigned to the Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) unit, the PFD’s highly specialized company at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL). The opening was created when the former Logistics Officer transferred to the PFD HAZMAT unit. Gollapalli saw the job posting and was captivated.

“The job description was interesting, but I read it more as an assignment that involved aircrafts and boats, both of which have intrigued me since I was a child,” he explained.

“Many people are not aware that Engine 78 is not only the ARFF Unit for PHL but it also has a Water Rescue Unit. Years ago, I did the Coast Guard Auxiliary program along with a friend of mine when he purchased a boat and have enjoyed boating. I also love to fly. I was working on a private pilot’s license and have a good bit of flight time completed. But I’ve had to put that on hold.

“I never expected to leave the field (structural firefighting), but here was an opportunity that involved planes and boats, and still remained a part of the fire department. So, I applied for the position, interviewed and here I am.”

As Logistics Officer, Gollapalli’s duties include assisting in the management of the ARFF budget, research of new equipment, execution of purchase orders, and coordination between ARFF staff and PHL Airport fiscal office. In the event of an aircraft emergency, he may also serve as the initial logistics officer.

One of Gollapalli’s responsibilities is managing the ARFF Training Center. One of just a handful of its kind in the Mid-Atlantic, the facility is used by airport and aviation fire companies throughout the region as well as Engine 78 to fulfill their Federal Aviation Administration mandated annual live-fire training. The Training Center’s sophisticated equipment and capabilities fascinate Gollapalli.

“The most satisfying part of my job is being in the Fire Training Facility tower operating the training simulators during Live Fire Burns,” he says. “The most challenging part is the maintenance and repairs associated with keeping the training simulators operational.”

The ARFF unit is highly specialized and its members are required to complete initial and ongoing training mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. In addition to satisfying those requirements, Gollapalli has had to learn the nuances of his new position and work environment. He credits Captain Anthony Dabrowski and Lt. Thomas Walsh for easing his transition to Engine 78 and Yolanda Parks in the PHL Purchasing unit for helping him navigate the Airport Procurement Management System.

“The two of them (Dabrowski and Walsh) were instrumental in getting me up and running. I still reach out to them when I have a question,” Gollapalli said. “From the PHL side, I have learned the most from Yolanda, who has helped me through the APMS System with such grace. She is one of the most patient and detail-oriented people I have met at PHL.”

Gollapalli arrived at PHL a couple of months prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. When the pandemic hit, the ARFF facility didn’t – and couldn’t – slow down.

“The FAA requires that ARFF firefighters are trained and maintain FAA 139 minimum requirements in order to keep an airport open,” Gollapalli explained. “Therefore, the Fire Training Facility continued to operate as usual throughout the COVID -19 shutdown. We have continued to train our PHL ARFF Firefighters from Engine 78, as well as numerous outside airport fire departments and aircraft manufacturing companies. We have done this while following all departmental COVID-19 guidelines in cleaning, wearing masks and social distancing.”

Being at the training and learning-focused ARFF seems a natural fit for Gollapalli, who places a high value on professional development. In the emergency services industry, he says, employees must know more than the minimum.

“Adding knowledge in any form, be it continuing education credits, seminars, certifications, online classes, college degrees, fire academy courses, or simply spending time with subject matter experts makes a professional,” he notes.

Away from the ARFF facility, Gollapalli leads a full life with a variety of interests. The father of a 17-year son Jacob and 12-year-old daughter Anya, Gollapalli may be found scuba diving with his kids (Catalina Island in the Kelp Forest is a favorite place), or on a motorcycle, working on classic sports cars, or in a yoga or cooking class.

He’s versed in several Indian languages and dialects and was also schooled in French. Fascinated by culture, he has travelled through his native India, Europe, most of the states in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Hong Kong, and Israel to name a few. “From a historical, architectural and ancient culture standpoint, Italy is a certainly a clear winner,” he notes.

Gollapalli also sits on the board of a non-profit and one of the most rewarding things he has done are mission trips to Haiti.

“My son and I went on a mission trip to Haiti after the earthquakes,” Gollapalli said. “He was about 13 at the time. It was an eye opener for my son to see how little they had, yet they were happy and grateful for everything that we take for granted. We built several one-room, 8’X10’ tin sheds. Each for an entire family.”

Gollapalli’s rich life experiences have given him a perspective well-rounded in cultural understanding and sensitivity as well as a deep appreciation for the country he emigrated to as a young man from India in pursuit of an education decades ago.

“I appreciate what I have here in the United States so much more,” Gollapalli said. “I’ve learned that despite the fact that we are far from perfect, the United States is the greatest country in the world in terms of opportunity and freedoms.”


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