By Kim Mueller
With fanfare and several street barricades, the Kansas City Fire Department paused River Market traffic Wednesday to celebrate its 150th anniversary as a professional operation and announce a new fire chief.
Gary Reese became the city’s 25th fire chief, replacing former Chief Paul Berardi who retired last November. The announcement was made at the corner of Fifth and Wyandotte, a storied location in the history of the department.
On March 14, 1868, the city’s first Fire Chief Francis Foster took ownership of the city’s first steamer fire truck at that corner.
The truck was named after City Councilman John Campbell, who paid $5,500 for the truck after the city could not find the funds, said Roy Elder of the Kansas City Fire Historical Society.
The fire truck ended the era of the volunteer bucket brigade in Kansas City, but horses still were needed to pull the shiny new fire truck, showing it off around town before taking it into the basement of the old City Hall in the River Market, Elder said.
That’s when the problems began. The truck would not fit through the doors, which were 16 inches too small, Elder said.
“Now, we know that firemen haven’t changed much in 150 years,” Kansas City Fire Historical Vice President Joe Alvarez said. “I’m sure someone paid a hefty price for that mistake.”
The morning celebration included a color guard, a colorful wreath, several official speeches, including remarks by Mayor Sly James and City Manager Troy Schulte, and a massive American flag suspended between two fire truck ladders.
To commuters’ consternation however, other fire trucks and police cars cordoned off several downtown streets including Independence Boulevard and the Wyandotte viaduct over the North Loop.
Reese, the new fire chief, has dedicated half his life to the fire department, most recently as division chief.
“Unifying the department is one of the main goals I had when I applied,” said Reese, 46, who holds a master’s degree in business from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
”My experience is strong, especially my educational background, and I feel well prepared to lead the department through the challenges we’ll face in the future.”
One of the department’s biggest challenges, according to Schulte, is to transition from the fire protection department of the past into the emergency medical service provider.
More than 85 percent of the 130,000 annual emergency calls are EMT related, Schulte said.
“Unfortunately, our work is not done,” Schulte said as he relayed news about the city’s latest fatal fire that occurred six hours before the ceremony.
Two people died following the house fire at the corner of Ninth and Belmont just before 4 a.m. Wednesday. Two other people inside the home escaped without injury. The cause of the fire has not been determined.
“The structure did not have working smoke alarms, which is frustrating because there isn’t any reason not to have a smoke alarm,” Schulte said. “We provide them free.”
While Reese is stepping up into his new position as the city’s new fire chief, Donna Maize will be leaving her deputy chief post at the department and moving to City Hall where she will become assistant city manager for public safety.
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