20 Questions

(PHOTO BY NEAL BRUNS)

Pete Kelly

By Bonnie Blackburn
Pete Kelly was a fireman for nearly 30 years, the last seven of which he served as Fort Wayne’s fire chief. Though he retired at the end of June, he’s still got a few things to say about firefighting and politics. Learn his reflections on his career, his life and his advice for his replacement as we play 20 Questions.

 

How’d you get started in firefighting?
Back in 1984, I’d been involved in the restaurant business through school. I heard the fire department might be hiring, so I applied. My dad and I used to get a kick out of chasing fire engines. It was in my blood from an early age.


What attracted you to firefighting?
It’s a unique job. I’m from a family of 11 kids, so going from one of 11 to the fire service family in the engine house, where we all have to get along, was easy. It’s something different every day, and you get to help people.


What did you like about the administrative side?
I enjoyed and am missing all the people, the entire department. It’s a good, close-knit team. As far as the staff goes, I enjoyed forming the team, and we got fairly close. I also liked the ability to influence the department in a very positive way.


Over the years, you’ve seen some pretty amazing blazes, such as the St. Mary’s church fire and the Bowser Avenue tire fire. Which ones stand out to you?
The magnesium fire off Coliseum (at the National Magnesium & Aluminum Foundry in 2006) — that was probably a really close call where we could have lost firefighters. That’s the biggest fear.


How has firefighting changed over your career?
I really think the equipment has gotten better. The protective gear is better. The self-contained breathing apparatus is better. We’ve got better gear and equipment, and our apparatus is better. And it’s geared as much toward medical (response) as much as fire rescue anymore.


It seems people may be getting the message about fire safety more than   in the past. Is that something you’ve seen too?
It is better. Statistically speaking, the number of structure fires in the last 10 years has decreased drastically. A lot of the decrease is due to better safety education, smoke detectors, new (building) construction is better. There’s been a lot of advances and (improved) safety education. We’re still seeing more food left on the stove (catching fire) lately, though.


What would you do to ensure no one ever died in a fire again?
The No. 1 most important thing is to have working smoke detectors. If everyone can be alerted and get out, that’s the key.


What do you plan to do with all your free time now that you’re retired?
I’m keeping my options open. We have a lake place in LaGrange County, and I want to spend more time there. I want to reconnect with old friends and family. I enjoy cooking and hope to get better at that.


Speaking of cooking, what’s your best firehouse recipe?
Chicken Parmesan became what everyone looked forward to.


What did you do at the fire station between calls?
People don’t realize that we don’t have as much free time between incidents as you’d think. At Station One, we’d play volleyball. People would criticize us for that, but it’s better than just sitting around. And we’d have lively discussions. That’s the piece you miss.


What scares you?
As a fire chief, what scares me is serious injury or losing a firefighter. We’ve been very fortunate. I credit the command staff. Safety has become a real priority. It has evolved into doing what’s sensible.


If you hadn’t gone into firefighting, what would you have done for a career?
Probably the restaurant business. I like cooking. I enjoy the fast pace. But I’ve gotten a little too old for that now!


Your wife, Pat Roller, is the City Controller. Do politics ever come between you?
I called it “worlds colliding” when she joined the city. We’ve handled it very well. There are times we don’t agree. That adds another dimension to this marriage, that’s for sure! We’ve been married 31 years and have two daughters.


Your replacement, Amy Biggs, is the first woman to head the fire service. Do you have any advice for her?
I was fortunate to have been surrounded by a great staff and that will go a long way towards her success as well. Also, don’t lose your sense of humor and stay in touch with the firefighters as much as possible.


How do you feel about fireworks?
Right now I’m really down on them because it’s really dry. The best way to view fireworks is at a planned event. They are very dangerous.


Are you able to go make hotdogs and s’mores over an open fire without going all “fire chief” on it?
I probably drive some of my family members crazy. I always have a bucket of water close by. Some might view me as overly cautious, but it’s rubbed off on my daughters.


Are you planning on keeping a police/fire scanner going?
I’m going to try to listen in. That’s going to be tough! Somehow I’d like to be able to listen in. It’s become background noise for me.


You were instrumental in getting the combined 911 service finally completed. Why did it take so long?
Unfortunately the fire service and law enforcement, right or wrong, can be territorial. We’re afraid of losing direct control. Politics is necessary,  but it can stand in the way or delay progress.


What are the characteristics of a good firefighter?
They have to be able to get along with other people, be willing to be a team member. It’s a team job. That’s the key. Of course, they have to have the physical capabilities. You have to have a sense of wanting to help people.


What are you most proud of as you look back over your career?
The department in general is very positive, with good attitudes and is well respected. I don’t usually toot my own horn, but I’ve been a part of that. I’m most proud of the condition (in which) I’m leaving the department.

Posted: Mon, 07/30/2012 - 1:43 pm
Last updated: Fri, 11/02/2012 - 2:13 pm