‘Drinking from a fire hose’

Iola's new fire chief Chase Waggoner has been getting acquainted with the city and fire department since he arrived in December. He previously served on the city council in Lebanon, Mo.

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January 4, 2021 - 9:20 AM

Chase Waggoner is Iola’s new fire chief. His first few weeks have been spent getting to know the city and department. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

There’s a term for somebody getting acquainted quickly with a new job, from meeting scores of new colleagues, to learning the ins and outs unique to that position.

Chase Waggoner knows it well. 

“I’m certainly drinking from a fire hose right now,” joked Waggoner, who became Iola fire chief in December.

“The list is slowly starting to whittle down,” the Lebanon, Mo., native said. “I’m trying to get caught up on things. It’s really a learning process. You walk in on Day 1 with the confidence of knowing what you’re doing, until you realize, geez, I don’t necessarily even know how Allen County talks to dispatch, where certain resources are, the strengths and weaknesses of your personnel.”

What he’s seen has left him impressed, both with his fellow firefighters and ambulance personnel, and with the community as a whole.

He carries high praise for the Fire Department, which also is responsible for operating ambulance services for all of Allen County.

“The two services go hand-in-hand with one another,” Waggoner said. “It creates efficiency. For one thing, the county has a fully staffed EMS service ready at a moment’s notice. I’m surprised more counties like ours, with one big city, don’t use the same model.”

WAGGONER, 38, grew up in Lebanon — about an hour northeast of Springfield — with barely any thought of getting into firefighting.

“I grew up not really thinking it was a viable choice,” Waggoner said.

Instead, he was intent on pursuing a career in the business world, something requiring a suit and tie.

Fresh out of college, and uncertain where his career path would lead, Waggoner zagged when most expected him to zig. 

One of his best friends convinced Waggoner, then 23, to try for a seat on the Lebanon City Council.

“I remember thinking, I don’t even know who my city councilman was,” Waggoner recalled. 

But he agreed to give it a whirl, and campaigned vigorously. “I worked incredibly hard on the election,” he said. “I knocked on doors, passed out flyers, did all that.”

Waggoner won his seat by 22 votes, in a community of 15,000.

The experience was illuminating, he said.

“It challenges you,” Waggoner said. “There are so many things about the way a city government operates that the average person thinks they know. But you get in there as a city employee or an elected official, to where you really see, ‘wow, this is a lot more complicated than I realized.’”

As part of his duties, Waggoner was assigned on a committee dealing with fire protection.

Like Iola, Lebanon has a paid fire department, and surrounded by rural areas manned by volunteer departments.

“I wanted to learn more about firefighting, and why our city was spending money on certain things,” he said. 

The local fire chief convinced him to join a rural volunteer department to learn more about it.

“At the time, I had no desire to run inside a burning building, because I thought that was a little bit crazy,” he said. “And I thought the only thing crazier than somebody who makes a living running inside a burning building is somebody who does it as a volunteer for free.”

Nevertheless, he agreed to join the volunteer department — sort of.

“I still had no desire to run into a burning building. But I noted if they needed any help writing grants, doing purchasing, any of the administrative stuff, I’d be more than happy to help.”

As for operations, Waggoner also found another niche — driving the trucks.

“Maybe that was my dream,” he joked. “Who doesn’t want to fight fires, but who wants to drive the fire engine?”

As fate would have it, Waggoner was driving to an early training session when a call came in for a garage fire.

Because Waggoner and his fellow firefighters were already with the truck, they were at the scene at a moment’s notice.

“Since we were there before the other volunteers, I had no choice but to fight the fire,” he recalled. “I was terrified out of my mind.”

But with that fear came the adrenaline.

“I got bit by the bug,” he said. “Some people, firefighting is just in their DNA. I found out it was in mine.

“I thought as a kid growing up, I wanted a suit and tie job,” Waggoner said. “I never thought I was going to enjoy being at the edge of a burning garage, spraying water out of a hose at 200 PSI.”

Within a year, Waggoner found his niche, working as a legislative aide for a state representative in the Missouri State Legislature by day, and firefighting whenever calls would arise.

That lasted until he lost his job as an aide due to budget cuts in 2012.

Sara, his newlywed wife, lent some sage advice. “You can always, anytime you want, go back to city administration, political science or business,” she noted. “But there are not a lot of fire departments that are going to hire a 55-year-old rookie firefighter.”

If he was ever going to go full time into the fire service, it was now or never.

He sent out multiple applications, and heard a positive response from Girard, which was seeking a new fire chief.

“It was about the perfect position for a first-time fire chief,” Waggoner said. For one, it allowed him to hone his administrative background. 

Secondly, the department was structured so that the chief was required to help occasionally, but not always, in emergency situations.

“It was a really good learning experience, and definitely they were a good group of guys,” he said. “It taught me a lot as a manager for a full-time department and volunteers.”

After about four years, Waggoner was ready for his next step.

“When you’re a fire chief, there are only two ways to get promoted: get a job in a larger city, or stay in a small town and become city administrator.”

Waggoner was hired in 2016 as city manager in Vandalia, Mo., but realized quickly it was not a good fit. Budget cuts, and a controversial decision to let go part-time officers from the police department quickly put Waggoner at odds with the city council. 

Within seven months, he was out at Vandalia, and working as a purchasing manager for an area healthcare company.

He held that job for about 18 months until budget cuts forced him back into the job market.

“I wanted to take one more stab at city administration,” he said. “The first one didn’t work out, and I wanted to prove to myself I could do it..”

He was hired early in 2020 as city manager at Williams, Ariz. — another ill-suited position, as it turned out.

Within months, Waggoner was on the outs with the Council there and wondering about his career.

“I was just sick of moving around,” he said. “I felt like my resume was in tatters. My wife was tired of buying a house, getting moved, settling into a community, and then moving again. 

“We wanted a place to call home for a while.”

Waggoner pursued something outside city administration, and found the opening when Iola Fire Chief Tim Thyer announced his retirement, effective in November.

Even better, Waggoner already knew Thyer and his predecessor, Donald Leapheart, after meeting both while he was the Girard chief.

“Several things about Iola appealed,” he said. “Obviously, the proximity to home and where I worked in southeast Kansas. Normally, when you have your first conversation with the previous chief, it goes something like, ‘Hi, my name is Chase.’ This time, it was, “Hey, it’s Chase. What’s going on?’”

Iola’s size is ideal as well.

“My wife’s a small-town girl, and I’m from a city about the size of Coffeyville, so I’m not a big-city guy, either,” he said. “Iola’s big enough to have all of the amenities you need, but not so big you have to worry about crime, or traffic, or pollution.”

Working within both IFD and Allen County EMS “makes this a pretty prestigious role,” Waggoner offered. “There are few cities of 5,500 in the Midwest with a 28-person department, and most of them don’t run fire and EMS.”

A FEW early priorities fill Waggoner’s to-do list.

On top of getting to know each of the firefighters and EMS personnel on staff, Waggoner is hoping to fill a pair of vacancies within the department. If filled, there would be 28 on staff — three nine-member shifts, plus Waggoner.

Guiding IFD through a pandemic during the holiday season — five staffers have tested positive at one point or another — as well as other absences due to colds and flu have forced him to scramble to fill shifts.

“We’ve been hit pretty hard,” he said. “Some guys are getting a lot more overtime than I’d like in a normal situation, but that’s the way it works.”

And then there is the task of learning more about the equipment the department has at its disposal, as well as meeting other area chiefs and firefighters, and learning how those departments complement each other.

“Again, it’s drinking from a fire hose,” Waggoner said. “You always worry that you have a big fire in your first six weeks on the job, just because you haven’t always had the opportunity to meet with somebody else.”

He, too, is impressed with Iola’s equipment.

He recalled working in Girard, and assisting neighboring communities with a grant to replace air packs. One community of about 600 wound up paying $1,200 for new packs, thanks to a grant, instead of $30,000.

“No way communities that size can get $30,000 for packs,” Waggoner said. “That’s the price of a truck for them.”

He’s eager to work with the neighboring departments on such things as grant applications.

“A lot of our equipment is older,” he noted. “We’re a small, rural community so we’re making due with the best we can. I’d like to see some of our older equipment replaced with newer, but nothing steps out as ‘oh my gosh, this is dangerous.’ If we had a bigger budget, we’d probably have replaced it before now.”

He points to the new ambulance stations at Humboldt and Moran as “great assets” within the county.

“And we’ve got a decent little station in Iola,” he continued. “It’s not the newest, most sparkling diamond, but it’s nice.”

His goal is to make being a firefighter in Iola and Allen County attractive enough to keep young recruits.

“I make no qualms,” Waggoner said. “We can’t pay what Wichita or Kansas City can. I’d like for people who come thinking this is the first step in their career and say, ‘Hey, this is a nice community, good place to live. I think I want to stay here.”

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