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New Chief Says He'll Use His MBA In Running The Kansas City, Missouri, Fire Department

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
New Kansas City, Missouri, Fire Chief Gary Reese said a firefighter's role is expanding. "Everyone that used to come on and just be a firefighter is now going to have to be an EMT or paramedic as well," he said.

Gary Reese has spent more than two decades as a firefighter, but he's apparently been thinking about the job all his life.

"(My mom) sent me a picture of me as about a four-year-old, and I had a fire truck and I had said, 'I want to be an army man and a fireman,'" Reece told Up to Date host Steve Kraske on Thursday.

Reece is now running the Kansas City Fire Department. He took on the role as chief earlier this month,  replacing former chief Paul Berardi, who retired in November.

One of his top priorities, he said, is better communication.

For example, while the city's fire department and its mass ambulance service merged eight years ago, the two divisions are still working to make language for on-the-ground situations "clear, concise and understandable."

"Sometimes I think cultures take a long time to really, totally mesh," he said.

Ninety percent of the calls that come into the department are for emergency medical services, he added.

As a division chief, Reese worked in communications in Kansas City's third district, something he described as "eye-opening." He said it reinforced the importance of good communication between dispatchers, emergency services, the police department and the fire department as key to quick response times.

"If you're not efficient and proficient at extinguishing fires and taking people to the hospital then you're going to have problems," he said.

He said the department is also focusing on budgeting and revenue. Currently, public safety takes up nearly 76 percent of the city's general funds, which, Kraske said, concerns some city officials.

Reese, who has an MBA from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said he wants to work on moving the department from a "cost center model" to a "business model." He suggested this eye toward running the department as a business is something that helped float him to the top of the applicant pool.

"We don't bill you, necessarily, to put a fire out at your house. But I just think we can explore revenue streams of efficiencies and billing," he said.

Besides talk of newness within the department — potential new revenue models, new technologies, and new communication strategies — one problem, and the strategy to fix it, is old.

"We find a lot of fatality fire situations where they didn't have a working smoke detector."

People forget to check the batteries twice a year as recommended, or simply don't have them, Reese said.

"We've got smoke detectors for the public," he said. "They can get them from us."

Listen to Kansas City Fire Chief Gary Reese's entire conversation with Steve Kraske on Up To Date here

Kathleen Pointer is an assistant producer for KCUR's Up To Date. Follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpointer.