PHOS-CHEK fire retardant was first approved by the US Forest Service for use as an aerial fire retardant in 1963. In the decades since, PHOS-CHEK has helped firefighters to save countless lives and protect thousands of homes from wildfire. To celebrate the fire retardant’s 60th anniversary, Perimeter Solutions is honoring some of the individuals who have made important and lasting contributions to fire safety and the growth of PHOS-CHEK by honoring them as one of the Heroes of PHOS-CHEK.
George Roby, a former USFS and Perimeter Solutions employee, worked in fire safety for decades. As the February Hero of PHOS-CHEK, he reflected on the highlights of his career.
Diving Into a New Career in Forestry
More than 60 years of my life were dedicated to fire management and protecting others. Even before I started my 31-year career with the US Forest Service in 1959, I worked as a lifeguard when attending high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was lucky that I had that experience because it helped me get a foot in the door with the USFS.
When I first tried to get a job with the Forest Service, there were no firefighting jobs available, but they did need lifeguards for the Angeles National Forest and they hired me to fill one of the part-time positions. Later in the year, one of the firefighter jobs did open, and I jumped at the chance. Looking back, I would say it was probably the best job I ever had. There was never a dull moment. The organization at the time was delegating authority to those in the field, so the people on the ground had a lot of authority to do a lot of things. When you made a bad decision, you paid the consequences and learned from it. The objective was to make the right decision most of the time. I made very few bad decisions and worked my way up the organization to become Forest Supervisor – a role where you are head of all the rangers on a national forest. I was on the Angeles National Forest.
In those early days, much of my focus was on moving forward in my career and furthering my education, eventually receiving a degree in Forest Management from Oregon State. There was a little time for a social life as well and a friend set me up on a blind date with a woman named Margarita Scott. When we met, she told me she was shocked at my appearance because she was expecting the worst—and so was I—and now, we’ve been married for 56 years – all after a blind date. That was the highlight of my career with the Forest Service.
There were other highlights, for sure, but there were so many that it’s hard to isolate one from the others. But becoming an incident commander stands out because it was gratifying to walk away from a fire that you were able to control without losing anyone under your command.
One of the most rewarding experiences working at the Forest Service was the role I played in securing cost of living increases for USFS personnel in Southern California. Some of my employees were actually on welfare. I knew things were bad, but the wife of one of my Fire Captains came in crying because they couldn’t afford to survive on what they were making. I promised to help. I talked about the problem with my fellow Forest Supervisors in Southern California, and they didn’t think I had a prayer getting anything changed. Then I decided on my own to travel to Washington DC to meet with the leaders in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to talk about the challenges my crews were facing. This back and forth went on for a couple of years, and then at that point, I announced my retirement from the Forest Service. At my retirement party, the Regional Forester (who is in charge of all National Forests in California—18 total) presented me with a letter from the OPM approving a pay raise for everyone working at all national forests in Southern California. Later, other areas in California received cost of living increases as well.
During my time with the Agency, I was fortunate enough to build relationships with many people in the industry, and after retirement, I was able to parlay that into a new role as agency liaison for PHOS-CHEK—a job that I would stay in for another 29 years. I worked with people from PHOS-CHEK for years at the Forest Service. I got to know them very well, and knew about the quality of their products. I was offered a few other positions, but when PHOS-CHEK approached me, I knew I was going to take the job because I knew the people at PHOS-CHEK had integrity. I knew that the PHOS-CHEK team had a high-quality product stewardship team, and I knew Larry Vandersall very well—he is actually the person who hired me.
Taking a look back at my 60-year career—with the USFS as a Forest Supervisor and Incident Commander, and at PHOS-CHEK where I worked with portable operations making sure that all products and equipment were working properly—my greatest source of pride is that no firefighters lost their lives under my command. I know of very few who have gone that long without having a major incident.
Perimeter Solutions will recognize a new Hero of PHOS-CHEK each month during 2023 in the PHOS-CHEK 60th Anniversary Museum, which includes numerous exhibits that tell the history of PHOS-CHEK. To tour the Museum, visit https://www.perimeter-solutions.com/en/phos-chek-60-years/.