Denfeld News

December 31, 2014
Duluth News Tribune

Man of many badges lays last one down
By Tom Olsen

When John Strongitharm filled out an evaluation form in his first year as a Duluth firefighter, he was asked to state his long-term goal. 

"I want to be chief," he recalled writing. He wrote the same answer the next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. 

It took 17 years, but Strongitharm - the son of aformer Duluth firefighter - fulfilled his ambition and took over the reins of the Duluth Fire Department in March 2003. 

"I just loved this profession from Day One," Strongitharm said this week. "I fell in love with it. I always wanted to be a part of the decision-making process to make us better." 

In his nearly 12-year tenure as chief, Strongitharm has emphasized emergency management preparations, navigated his department througha city budgetary crisis and led a structural reorganization of department resources. 

Strongitharm , 55, will walk out of the downtown Duluth fire hall for the last time today when he retires after serving his city for nearly three decades. 

"As a boss, I couldn't ask for anyone to be more supportive," said Deputy Fire Chief Bryan Bushey, the only member of the department with a longer tenure than Strongitharm . "John has definitely gone through difficult times with a lot of budget difficulties and issues, but he's very effectively handled those problems. He's leaving the department in a very good place." 

Strongitharm, a Denfeld High School and College of St. Scholastica graduate, grew up the son of a firefighter. His dad, Dennis, served the Duluth Fire Department for many years. 

But the younger Strongitharm didn't immediately have an interest in following in father's footsteps. It wasn't until he moved to Albert Lea, Minn., and got a job as an emergency medical technician that he decided to pursue the career. 

He was hired as a city of Duluth firefighter in 1986, a year after his father retired for health purposes. He went on to serve stints as a chauffeur, captain, deputy fire marshal and fire marshal before then-Mayor Gary Doty appointed him to succeed retiring fire chief Dan Haus in early 2003. 

"I didn't necessarily have to be chief," said Strongitharm, reflecting on his early career goal. "If I wouldn't have been made chief, it wouldn't have been a failure for me by any means because I felt I was achieving a lot in those other positions as well." 

Strongitharm took office as fire chief only 18 months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, at a time when there was a significant nationwide emphasis on homeland security. Firefighters were suddenly tasked with additional responsibilities, such as training for explosive devices. 

"It really kind of expanded the fire service into another area where they hadn't been in the past," he said. "The fire department has always kind of been this 'if you don't know who else to call, call the fire department.'" 

Strongitharm also assumed the role as the city's emergency management director - a job that was once a full-time position. 

It's not just a terrorist attack he has had to prepare for. It's the trains and semis hauling oil and hazardous materials through town. It's the possibility of a major power grid outage in the dead of winter. 

"It weighs on you," Strongitharm said. "You can never do too much to prepare for any situation." 

Police Chief Gordon Ramsay commended his counterpart's ability to work together with agencies and prepare for emergencies. 

"Take the flood from a few years ago," Ramsay said. "There was a lot of responsibility on his shoulders as emergency manager. He had to rely on those relationships he built with people and his leadership skills. I think we came out of that very well thanks to his leadership." 

Strongitharm said the toughest part of his career undoubtedly was the city's budgetary troubles during the Great Recession. The department had to cut some rigs and lost some jobs to attrition, he said, but it has since rebounded. 

"We used to have a lot more ranks and we had a lot more stations and they were better staffed," he said. "Slowly but surely, we were getting brought down, and we got to a kind of breaking point." 

More recently, Strongitharm led the department through an operational study that sought to improve services and meet national standards by consolidating fire stations, improving staffing models and reducing the size of the department's fleet. 

That initiative wasn't without controversy. There was public uproar over the closing of the Park Point station, and plans to build a new station that would've combined the Woodland and University of Minnesota Duluth halls never came to fruition. 

"You need to have a good balance," Strongitharm said. "You want to provide the best services and have the best response time possible." 

Strongitharm , who has hired more than half of the department's current roster of firefighters, said many of his initiatives during his tenure were accomplished due to his support staff, including Bushey. 

Bushey, who has served as Strongitharm 's right-hand man as deputy chief since 2005, was appointed by Mayor Don Ness to serve as the next fire chief effective Thursday. He received unanimous approval from the City Council. 

Bushey said he has benefited from Strongitharm 's tutelage and doesn't anticipate bringing any major changes to department operations. 

"I believe that we're on the right path," he said. "I have to be somewhat satisfied with where we're at right now." 

Strongitharm was recognized Tuesday at agathering at the fire department's headquarters, where he was presented with a plaque from State Fire Marshal Bruce West. 

About 4 p.m.- about the time the party was wrapping up— a call could be heard over the emergency scanner. It wasn't a call for a fire or a water rescue or a medical emergency. It was ashort message of thanks to Strongitharm for his years of service. 

The dispatcher signed off with "10-7 " - scanner code meaning "out of service."

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