New KCFD Chief happy he got to swing the right ax

WRITTEN BY: Colleen Doctorian
PHOTO BY: Karen Lim

Many little kids say they want to be a firefighter when they grow up. You can go ahead and count Kansas City Fire Chief Gary Reese among this group. But unlike his boyhood peers, Reese not only wanted to be a firefighter he also wanted to be in the Army - and that is exactly what he did.

Chief Reese has served KCFD for 23 years and has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. That, of course, is great news for Kansas City residents who have come to expect dedicated leadership from those who have guided one of the nation’s top firefighting departments for 150 years.

City Manager Troy Schulte announced Reese’s appointment in March, saying that Reece distinguished himself during a competitive process that included several capable candidates able to succeed former Chief Paul Berardi, who retired Nov. 11, 2017, after a 32 year career.

“Chief Reese brings fresh and innovative ideas to this top leadership spot,” Schulte said. “His business approach, combined with his experience coming up through the department, will help us tackle the deployment and overtime issues while continuing to excel at public safety and firefighting.”

After his time at Fort Leonard Wood, Reese was living in the KC area when one of his wife’s co-workers mentioned he may want to apply for the KCFD Fire Academy. That suggestion turned into a life-changing moment for Reese. He applied for the academy. He then received not one, but two rejection letters. Discouraged? Maybe, but Reese was nowhere near finished. For him, the third time proved to be the charm. He was accepted to a third class of recruits that year and that alone was an unusual occurrence because most years only have one or occasionally two classes of recruits.

Reese embraced the opportunity to get paid to swing an ax - a skill he acquired while living in the Pacific Northwest and supplementing his income with a job chopping logs to sell as firewood. Now he was given the chance to do it as part of fighting fires. But an injury that Reese sustained made him unsure if his career as a firefighter would be long-lasting. So he decided to pursue his MBA at UMKC just in case the fire thing didn’t work out.

Four months after his injury, Reese was fortunate to be back fighting fires and doing what he enjoyed the most - serving the public.

As KCFD Chief, public service is a top priority for Reese and his objectives for the Department reflect that. Efficiency, meeting the needs of KCMO residents and improving diversity within the Department are just some of the goals the Chief is pursuing.

The types of calls that come into fire departments nationwide have shifted from primarily fire to medical over the last 20 years. Nearly 90 percent of calls for KCFD are medical related.

“Many of those medical calls are also frequent users of our medical services,” Reese said. “To address this increase in medical calls, we are working to develop a community paramedic program to assist these frequent callers.”

The Chief is also working to train more personnel as paramedics. The Department merged with MAST in 2010.

“Cross training of our firefighting staff is essential to providing the best service to residents. I recognize that a large percentage of the City budget is allocated to public safety,” Reese said. “We must use our resources in the most efficient way possible. We continue to review how we currently assign ambulances to stand-by duty at stations or to be out in the public.”

Increasing the number of minorities and women and providing opportunities for civilians, especially students, to join the department are also high on the chief’s priority list. The Department is working with Manual Tech High School and the Full Employment Council to provide more opportunities to employment with the Department.

“Even though I wasn’t born here, KC is now my home. I have now lived here longer than I lived anywhere else,” Reese said. “I hope to keep serving my hometown for many years to come.”