How Kansas City can improve its fire department

Kansas City will soon pick a new fire chief. He or she must address personnel management issues and the department’s aggressive culture.
Kansas City will soon pick a new fire chief. He or she must address personnel management issues and the department’s aggressive culture. The Star

Kansas City has an important opportunity to re-think and re-make its fire service in the coming weeks.

City Hall should seize it.

Current Fire Chief Paul Berardi is retiring in November after 32 years with the Kansas City Fire Department. By all accounts, Berardi has served his community with courage and hard work.

“Our department is strong,” Berardi said when announcing his decision to retire. “When called upon, it has never faltered and never will.”

This is undoubtedly true. Yet it’s also true that every public institution can be better, and the city’s fire service is no exception.

City Manager Troy Schulte will pick a new chief. We encourage him to look outside the department for fresh leadership, but even if he picks an internal candidate, he should focus on these goals:

▪  Better personnel management. The fire service is changing in Kansas City, thanks to safer construction and better building codes. The fire service is becoming an emergency service, with some members responsible for medical response.

That may be difficult for older members to accept. But it also leads to distortions in scheduling and overtime costs, which they new chief must address.

One Kansas City firefighter and paramedic earned more than $236,000 last year. That isn’t his fault. There are no indications the payments were improperly made.

But asking any emergency responder to work that much overtime is dangerous and is evidence of poor management.

“The levels of overtime worked by the fire department’s top overtime earners are likely well outside the recommended limits,” a recent study concluded.

The new chief should commit to working with the IAFF Local 42, the firefighters’ union, department staff and city budget officers to get a handle on overtime costs. If new firefighters and paramedics are needed, they should be hired.

▪  Improved response techniques. No one doubts the courage of Kansas City firefighters or their enthusiasm for their mission. The local fire service has long been known as one of the more aggressive departments in the nation.

But that attitude, deeply embedded in the fire service ranks, can be harmful. Kansas City’s firefighters must accept that sometimes the best approach to a fire is to back away.

To his credit, Chief Berardi seems to understand this. His replacement must make a safety culture a top priority. No property is worth the loss of human life.

We think a new leader for the department can be found. He or she inherits a service in good shape that could be even better.