Class Act: Steve Malley, firefighting guru possessed of a servant’s heart

Over the course of a multi-faceted 43-year career as a first responder and public-safety educator, Stephen Malley seems to have checked off every major item on his professional bucket list save one – the one that drew him to Amarillo College.

Malley, who since 2021 has served as coordinator of AC’s Fire Protection Technology program, will cross that last item off his list sometime this summer, when AC opens its new and long-awaited First Responders Academy.

The $21 million facility on Plains Boulevard will enable AC to finally gather all its first responder programs – law enforcement/criminal justice, fire protection technology, and emergency medical services professions – under one roof.

Malley, who during his lengthy career has served as a police officer, a fireman and a paramedic, was in his 17th year as director of the Public Safety Professions department at Weatherford College when he learned not only of the fire technology opening at AC, but of the College’s plan to establish the First Responders Academy.

“When I learned that Amarillo College was building a First Responders Academy where all the programs will come together to train and interact, I wanted to be a part of that,” Malley said. “When I was at Weatherford, I brought the various disciplines together under one programmatic umbrella, but was never able to convince the college to assemble them in a single location.

“It has always been a goal of mine to work at a college with the foresight to develop something like this, a building where all students in the public safety professions can work toward a common purpose in an atmosphere that reflects the collaborative work they will be called to do professionally,” he said. “Getting into this facility and teaching in it will be the high point of my career.”

Malley swiftly set out on a career in public-safety after graduating from high school in Mansfield, Texas. He completed associate degrees in both EMS and fire technology. He then earned a bachelor’s degree in business from Dallas Baptist University, and a master’s degree in public administration and emergency management at Anna Maria College in Paxton, Mass.

Public service is second nature to Malley. Prior to entering the higher education sector, he spent 24 rewarding years working at jobs in which he thwarted crime, saved lives, and protected property. He’s even delivered six babies.

“For me, it’s a servant’s heart,” Malley said. “You’ve got to want to work in a role where it’s not so much what you get in return as it is the satisfaction you get from having changed somebody’s world for the better.

“For me, working as a first responder is the absolute greatest job in the world. There’s nothing that equates to the satisfaction you get from helping people when they need it most, and that’s what we tell our fire cadets today.”

Fire departments everywhere, and certainly throughout the Texas Panhandle, are frustrated by a recent shortage of people entering the profession; staffing issues are widespread. But for anyone who still believes that firefighters can only be of the brawny male variety, Malley says they better think again.

“When we’re out looking for cadets, we’re looking for everyone,” he said. “We always have a section of people, both men and women, who say ‘when I grow up I want to be a fireman.’ They come in every semester, and we’re thrilled to have them.

“But Amarillo has incredible diversity, and we like to attract people from non-traditional backgrounds, too. In my short time here, we’ve already been able to build a broader base of diversified students, and now with the First Responders Academy, well, I think we’ll continue to grow across the board.”

That’s not necessarily wishful thinking, either, for in 2023 AC was named winner of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence – a pretty good drawing card for anyone seeking to grow enrollments.

“When AC was announced as co-winner of the Aspen Prize, it was pretty awesome,” Malley said. “Of course, I think we already knew we were the top community college in the country, but I think that when this non-biased, independent third party came in with this verification, that was all the proof we needed.

“Of course, we’re excited. It definitely impacted all of us on every campus, gave us something to brag about – there’s no way it could not. And we can recruit with confidence knowing that all our services are designed to make sure our students are successful.”

Malley’s appreciation of the $1 million Aspen Prize unexpectedly snowballed when he was selected to visit Dakar, Senegal last summer for an international learning opportunity afforded by the prize money to a contingent of 21 AC faculty and staff. He said it was an experience he will never forget.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing being immersed in another culture, just phenomenal. The things we saw and learned, we just walked away from going ‘wow!’ because some of the places we visited over there were so far beyond words – so impactful. And we went over there as colleagues and came back as a group of friends, with a lasting bond. We still talk, we have lunch, and because we’re on different campuses and our work doesn’t necessarily lend itself to building those kinds of friendships, well, I think it’s not something that you’ll find at most colleges.

“At AC, the ‘love your students to success’ and the ‘culture of caring,’ man, that’s not just a sign on the wall. That is what is practiced at Amarillo College.“

Malley, who got his first mini-bike when he was 5, has been riding motorcycles pretty much ever since. His passion for kayaking was curtailed somewhat when he moved to the waterway-deficient Panhandle. He also loves to read, just about anything, from poetry to periodicals on public safety – “anything I can get my hands on,” he says.

“But I love my work. Work is never work,” he adds. “I put in a lot of office time on Saturdays and Sundays because I know whatever I can accomplish will someday make something better.”

Malley pushes himself hard because he pushes his students hard.

“I know the world I’m trying to get them (students) into, but they have no idea,” he said. “We push them out of their comfort limits and they persevere until they get it, until one day they find themselves in a job that’s so fulfilling, and they come back and say, ‘you’re right, this is the greatest job in the world,’ and I’m like, ‘I know, that’s why we pushed you so hard.’

“Firefighting, we know, will put them into a world that will blow their minds as soon as they get out there. They just don’t know it yet.”