In the early evening of December 29th, Louie “Scooter” Martin was working the final hours of his last shift before retiring. For most people, that would mean eating a big, sugary cake and hearing some words of tribute from the boss. But Martin spent his final working hours racing through midtown traffic toward one of the biggest fires in Westport history (at Westport Presbyterian Church). It was a fitting end to the career of one of the long-serving firefighters in Kansas City history. This week, Alex Smith visited Louie “Scooter” Martin at his home in Liberty.
He’s less than two weeks into retirement, and Louie Martin still hasn’t completely adjusted. In the big, bright living room of his suburban home, he’s picking up toys after a recent visit from grandkids, but his mind still lingers on the career he’s leaving behind.
“There’s comes a time – I just figured it was time to quit. I’ll miss it. I kinda miss it now, but it’s time to go.”
In 1960, Louie Martin was a 21-year-old air force veteran working as a typewriter repairman. He was out on a call when he saw a job listing that would change his life.
“I was down at city hall one day, and I just happened to look up there and saw they wanted to hire firefighters, and so, I thought it might be interesting. [They] called me about two weeks later, and I’ve been there ever since.”
After 30 days of training, he started at a station in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. That year, 1960, turned out to be a big one for major-scale fire, so Martin’s career got off to a quick start.
“At this station I was at, 25, we ran all second and third alarm fires in the West Bottoms, and that winter, it seemed like they had five or six big fires in the West Bottoms over there. So it wasn’t long before we were right in the middle of some of those.”
He was soon moved to Westport, where he spent most of his career. From early on, Martin worked primarily as a driver. This was a long time before GPS, and drivers were required to have a near-photographic memory of their districts.
“The old captains there, before they’d let you drive, he would take you out and show you the streets, and, through the days, he’d question, “Where’s this street at?” and when he felt you knew your district good enough, then you’d get broke in to drive.”
The one of the hardest parts of being a firefighter is something you can’t be trained for. Dealing with the physical and emotional demands of the job is something you can only gradually get used to. But the stress and pressure never really go away.
“I don’t know, you just unwind, I guess. You get a shower and clean up. Sometimes you don’t fall asleep. You just stay up all the rest of the time. It’s stressful when you’re doing something like that. Some mornings I’d come home and just lay down for a couple of hours, because I didn’t rest the night before. And that’s the way it goes.”
The countless fires over many decades all tend to blend together, but the worst day is still very clear in Louie Martin’s memory.
“There’s been a lot of bad fires, but the worst day, I think, wasn’t a fire. It was when the six were killed out on 71 highway on the explosion, cause we’d worked with every one of ‘em. They just saw the fire and got close, and that ammonium nitrate is highly explosive, and they didn’t know it was there. We spent ten days just going to funerals. And that was the one that stays in my mind. It wasn’t a huge fire. You go to a lot of big fire, but that one explosion was devastating to everybody.”
Continual training has always been a part of a firefighter’s life, but after the 6 firefighters were killed, Kansas City, Missouri took dramatic steps to update their methods, especially when dealing with chemical fires. Today, in addition to Haz-Mat teams and new technology, the training for firefighters is dramatically different than it was when Louis Martin started.
“When I come on, we went through a Boy Scout first aid book. It was just bandages and things like that. Now you’re taught CPR. They’ve had a lot of saves with CPR. That’s a big part of any fire department is the medical side now.”
The typical career of a firefighter is about 32 to 40 years, so with Louis “Scooter” Martin’s 51 ½ year career, he’s probably the longest-ever serving KCMO firefighter. He probably won’t miss the heat and soot and smoke, but he says that’s not really what being a firefighter is about.
“You always miss the people. That’s what the fire department is - is the people. You have to work as a team. You get somebody now and then that freelances. They’re the ones that get hurt. They’re the ones that don’t last very long. But each company works as a team, and you’re looking out for each other that way. But you’ll miss the people you work with.”
Louie “Scooter” Martin has just retired after 51 years on the Kansas City, Missouri fire department.