By Paul Thompson
The 150-year anniversary of the Kansas City Fire Department (KCFD) was celebrated on Wednesday, March 14 with a reflection on the past and a glimpse of the future.
City leaders and KCFD personnel gathered at the intersection of W. Independence and Wyandotte in downtown Kansas City for the celebration, at the spot where “Francis Foster became the City’s first Fire Chief by taking ownership of the John Campbell Steamer No. 1 on March 14, 1868,” according to a City press release. Back then the fire engines were powered by steam, and a separate truck carried the hoses. A team of horses pulled the engines to fire scenes.
Several streets were shut down for the celebration, which featured several modern fire trucks along with a vintage, mint condition fire suppression vehicle. Draped between two truck ladders, perched on a bridge above I-70 was a giant American flag, flowing in the wind beneath a picturesque blue sky.
After reflecting on the department’s past, the day’s focus was shifted to the future, as Kansas City, Missouri City Manager Troy Schulte announced that 23-year KCFD veteran Gary Reese had been appointed as KCFD’s new fire chief. The 46 year-old Reese had most recently served as a KCFD division chief, and was also a member of the 11-person team who conducted an internal investigation of the department following the tragic deaths of firefighters Larry Leggio and John Mesh. The firefighters perished in the line of duty while fighting a blaze on Independence Avenue on October 12, 2015.
Reese replaces previous Chief Paul Berardi, who retired in November of 2017.
“On behalf of a grateful city, I want to thank you for 150 years. I also want to tell that we’ve got more work to do,” Schulte said. “Chief Gary Reese has been appointed by me as your next fire chief, and he will begin his job now. Welcome aboard.”
During his comments, Reese spoke about the growth of the fire department over its illustrious 150-year history.
“As we commemorate our 150th birthday, it’s good to look back on our history and remember our humble roots. From the simple steamer fire apparatus that you heard about earlier, the Kansas City Fire Department has grown along with our city,” Reese said. “Today covering over 300 square miles, the men and women of the KCFD currently respond to 130,000 calls a year that come in through the 9-1-1 system.”
After the ceremony, Reese spoke about his goals for the department now that he’s taken over the top job. He brought up City goals like reducing overtime costs and continuing to address safety issues, while also referencing the department’s efforts to train firefighters in the smartest ways possible.
“We train in-house, and I think that just like Kansas City tries to be a smart city, we’d like to be the smartest fire department,” Reese said.
The new fire chief was also asked about the unfortunate start to the department’s 150th anniversary; with a deadly fire near the intersection of 9th and Belmont.
“It’s tough. It’s what we do, and we have to go out and do our job,” Reese said. “They look at the fire as something to beat, and when the fire takes lives from us that we’re sworn to protect, it hurts us. We know the people that lose their family members are hurting more.”
KCFD Battalion Chief Clay Colvin also commented on the impact that the loss of life has on firefighters sworn to protect Kansas City citizens.
“Unfortunately, we lost two citizens this morning. The reaction on the faces of those who respond to things like this is almost indescribable,” said Colvin. “It’s truly a defeat in the eyes of those who respond.”