Last week, Kansas City’s Fire Chief Smokey Dyer retired after twelve years at the helm.
The son of a firefighter, Smokey’s career in firefighting spans over forty years and includes a stint as Lee’s Summit’s fire chief.
He leaves behind a reputation for transforming the Kansas City Fire Department and for greatly improving relationships with the Firefighters Union and city government. But budget woes at city hall and an attractive early retirement package made it the perfect time for Smokey to exit. We sat down with him after his last day on the job.
Smokey’s First Days As A Firefighter
SUSAN: Why did you first want to become a firefighter?
SMOKEY: Well it’s a long story, and it sounds a little hokey, especially looking back on it, but it was in a different day in a different time. My dad was the volunteer fire chief in Buckner, Missouri, one of the smaller communities in Eastern Jackson County. And I assume that he put the mayor up to it, but when I was five years old the mayor called me, and it was after the first meeting of the volunteers when the volunteer fire department had reorganized due to a devastating fire that had occurred in Buckner. And the mayor, who was a gentleman then by the name of Arnold Ward, asked me if I would be willing to serve as the junior assistant fire chief. And I accepted, and then I started responding to fires with my father.
SUSAN: How old were you then?
SMOKEY: Five years old. And I was even released from schools to go on fires and whenever the volunteer fire department would respond by the school, I was permitted to go out on the sidewalk and the first engine that would go by would stop and pick me up and open up the door and throw me in. And then I continued to respond throughout all of my school days, becoming a state certified firefighter at the age of 15. And then started fighting fire with firefighters on the inside of buildings at that age, and then started driving fire apparatus at the age of 16.
City’s Struggling Economic Situation: A Factor In Retirement
SUSAN: So yesterday was your last day, what was that like and how do you feel about it?
SMOKEY: It was different. I was relieved in many ways of all the pressures and especially the fiscal situation the department currently finds itself in as part of city government. And as most urban cities throughout the country are facing, and as Chief you have the responsibility to bring together the resources that give our personnel and all of our missions the ability to do their job and serve their public and to ensure their safety. And when you’re unable to do that adequately then there is a tremendous amount of stress that comes with the job. So, being able to leave and not having that stress anymore is a great relief. I’m immediately having lower blood pressure and less muscle tension. But then on the other side of the coin, leaving the fire service after the only thing you’ve really known, and a lot of times people say in their adult life, in my case it’s my entire life, then walking out the door knowing that that’s the last time that you’re going to be back at fire headquarters in an official position, the last time you’re going to put on a uniform, the people that have been so supportive and have worked with you as a team in fire headquarters here in Kansas City for the past dozen years, it’s very emotional for me.
SUSAN: Now you were talking about the economic situation here in the city. Is that part of why you thought this was a good time to retire? I know you were quoted as saying that you really weren’t interested in being a leader at a time of retraction.
SMOKEY: That is correct. Yes, that we have over the past 12 years in my opinion build one of the best emergency service organizations of any urban city in America. And that includes our missions in fire protection, emergency medical service, rescue services and hazardous materials emergency response. In my opinion, there just aren’t going to be the fiscal resources in the future to be able to have the same type of organization that we have today. And so whether you call it ‘right sizing’ or ‘reengineering’ or whatever phrase that you might want to use to describe it, the fire department in KC is going to be different in the future. And I think that we have built an outstanding department, and I did not want to go through the process of recreating a department that some may describe as ‘leaner and meaner,’ but it takes a certain amount of resources to be able to respond at all times.
Criticisms On Emergency Response Times
SUSAN: Critics have alleged that the merge of the fire department and MAST have led to slower response times. How have you responded to that criticism?
SMOKEY: Well to some circles of the elected officials, my response has not been effective. The first thing that I thought it was crucial for us to do is to report response times without any editing and without any filtering of the numbers. And when these response times standards were originally created in Kansas City 30 years ago, they were because there was a private contractor. And that private contractor was trying to make a profit and return those profits to the ownership of the ambulance operation.
And so for a way for the city to ensure that the operator did not reduce the response resources down to an unacceptable level, response times standards were put in to say, 'We’re going to measure that you’re keeping enough resources on the number of ambulances and personnel on duty, and then if you can meet the response times you can cut it down right to what the response time level is that is required in the ordinance, and then any gravy you can make above that is yours. And the more efficient you can become, you can even make a larger profit.' But then the city said, 'But we understand that it would be difficult for you to make those response times when it’s snowy, so we will have weather exceptions.'
And then it got down to the point over 30 years, if it was raining, if there was a shower, all of those response times were taken out of the numbers. So what has really happened is that right now KCFD’s published reports do not match up as well as the MAST reports, because we are preparing unedited reports. It’s the actual performance of every life-threatening call, every life-threatening dispatch that goes out. And for a long time I was trying not to criticize the past system and criticize the way that it was done previously by MAST. And they weren’t doing anything wrong. It’s what the city permitted in this resource management. But then we tried to compare those two reports, primarily by The Kansas City Star and by two or three council members. And it’s been a red herring. We have the best emergency medical system that this city has ever seen right now today, and we have one of the best ones in the United States. And right now we’re showing that we have the 3rd best cardiac arrest survival rate that exists anywhere in America in an urban environment. Well if we were having bad response times, you cannot have those kinds of patient outcomes.
Improving Working Situations For Women In KCFD
SUSAN: You also led changes in opportunities and in the work climate for women. And this was a difficult and contentious issue for a time there. How did you successfully tackle this at that time?
SMOKEY: Well one, we immediately worked to improve the conditions in the stations by the fire sales tax. In putting a lot of money toward that mission, that was the first thing I think, to show the women of the organization that we were committed to giving them a good place to work, and a place that would have privacy. The second thing was I think of creating a culture where anything that would make a woman uncomfortable on the job was not going to be tolerated. And I made the decision at that point that every disciplinary case that would be heard by the fire department, that would be serious in nature where it could lead to a suspension or termination from the job, that I heard all of those cases myself, instead of delegating that. And so hopefully sending a signal to the women, that if you have a problem I’m going to be the one hearing the complaint and deciding what would be the appropriate course of action to change the behaviors or our organization. And then sharing in this labor management partnership of working with the union, to ensure that on all of our significant committees, that the union would ensure that there would be women present. And then promoting women to the ranks of battalion chief and now having the first woman deputy chief that the department has ever had in its 145 years history to be part of the command staff.
Smokey’s Regrets And Harder Days
SUSAN: Looking back what were some of your more difficult days or any regrets that you have?
SMOKEY: The regrets that I have are those things about trying to appear more flexible on these ambulance issues, and not being, I guess, more amenable to public relations and spin. As I have gotten older probably and more experienced, then I’ve gotten more set in my ways, and saying that if we’re doing an outstanding job, then I’m not too amenable of listening to politicians to say, 'Well not in our opinion, we think you need to be doing it another way'. We have an outstanding command staff and a set of chief officers that have given their entire lives’ work to this mission of emergency services, and to think that there can be somebody elected on a part-time basis that knows more about this job than they do is unbelievable to me that anybody would accept that. And so that’s the way that I thought about it, and many times I was very direct with the response and not being as political as I could be. The one thing about it, it’s a two-edged sword though. The more direct I am at City Hall, the more I tell them the way it is, I think the greater respect it gives me in the fire stations throughout the city. The more spin doctor I could have been, I think it would have eased tensions at city hall, but then I would have had less respect from our work force. Am I really the fire chief? Or am I just a politician wearing a fire department uniform?
The worst days were our line-of-duty death days. And that is what is the most stressful for the organization, and I think it’s the greatest stressor for any fire chief. And then the most difficult days next to that are days of severe injuries to our personnel, where it wasn’t death, but being there and seeing our personnel who are going to live the rest of their lives with pain and discomfort every day or their life of injuries that they sustained while serving our community, those were the worst days that I have encountered.
Smokey’s Proudest Accomplishment
SUSAN: So what’s you’re proudest accomplishment?
SMOKEY: My proudest accomplishment in Kansas City was creating the labor management partnership and putting together a department that is based on consensus decision making. I think that what’s going on in the country, fighting labor like it is some criminal element is really a disservice to our working men and women throughout the country. I think that where we ought to be concentrating is on finding methods and ways for labor and management to work together to find win-win solutions; that may sound like some spin term. But I think that we have proven in our department that that type of relationship really can work. And if we’re always just fighting and saying we’re going to take away your pensions, we’re going to take away your pay, we’re going to increase your work hours without discussing it with you, we’re going to build up a bitter labor work force. And in government that’s not going to serve the community well.
SUSAN: Well Smokey Dyer it’s been a pleasure having you on KC Currents and best wishes in your retirement.
SMOKEY: Thank you very much for having me today and in being where I was able to voice my true opinions that my first day retirement as a Kansas City citizen, as opposed to a public servant.
*Deputy Chief Paul Berardi, a 26 year veteran of the KCFD will step in as interim fire chief.