Kansas State Fire Chiefs Association has selected Lester Kaiser of Lincolnville as “Fire Chief of the Year.” Association president Brad Smith presented a plaque to him Oct. 23 at the state convention in Lawrence.
“I was surprised,” Kaiser said. “It was a bit emotional for me. I didn’t know what to say.”
Kaiser has been involved in fire fighting since he was in high school.
“It has been a very rewarding career,” he said. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The 1979 Centre graduate sometimes helped local volunteer firefighters battle blazes.
After high school, he got a job in a meatpacking plant at Garden City. He met his wife, Barb, in neighboring Deerfield. Her father was chief of the Deerfield Fire Department.
“He recruited me, I took some fire fighting training, and I got hooked,” Kaiser said.
After he married Barb and moved back to Lincolnville in 1985, he immediately got involved in the Lincolnville Fire Department. He said there was no organization, no equipment, no training, and no radios. There was little or no funding from the township and no one claimed ownership. Firefighting was the last priority.
“After working as a fire fighter at Deerfield, I couldn’t deal with no protective clothes,” he said.
The people who were involved were not interested in improving, he said. They had been doing it “this way” for many years.
In 1987, he was named Chief of Lincolnville/ClearCreek Volunteer Fire Department. He has remained in that position ever since.
“Lester brought the department into the 21st century,” Barb Kaiser said.
He led the way in training by acquiring his firefighter one and EMT-Basic certifications. He now is an EMT-Advanced. He encouraged fire fighters to attend regular meetings and gain knowledge of the trucks, equipment, and procedures necessary to keep them safe. He has trained 12 to 18 firefighters during his command.
Kaiser led the way in getting a new fire station built. It houses a brush truck, two tankers, a pumper, and a first-responder vehicle.
Soon after that, the department was organized as Marion County Fire District No. 5.
“Going district gave us a chance to make improvements,” Kaiser said.
He said fire chiefs help each other: “It’s like a family, a giant network of people and resources.”
He emphasized that he could not have succeeded without those who worked with him.
“Without them, we as fire chiefs are nothing,” he said.
He said he couldn’t have asked for a better assistant than he has in Barry Montgomery.
“We balance each other out,” he said. “He stood in for me when I was deployed to Bosnia.”
Kaiser has been a fire fighter at Ft. Riley since April 1991. He now is a battalion chief who oversees three fire stations.
He said his experience at Ft. Riley helped him as a local fire chief but noted the two departments are quite different. One has paid firefighters; the other is made up of volunteers.
He is active in the Marion County Fire Chiefs Association, where he shares the knowledge he gains as a full-time firefighter. He brought trainings from the University of Kansas to all county districts and acted as a liaison for other departments that wanted to establish fire districts.
“Chief Kaiser always puts all others first,” Barb said.
To support that claim, she related what happened during the ice storm of 2007, when the area lost power for nine days.
She said she was scheduled to have a chemotherapy treatment at St. Luke Hospital in Marion, and he needed to take her and stay with her.
He began making phone calls from the hospital room, standing with his cell phone at the window to get service. He talked with city council members about setting up a shelter and finding a generator for the community building.
During the next days, he and his fellow firefighters checked on shut-in citizens, provided fuel for generators, and took a couple of EMS runs, never stopping until the power was on.
“This is the Chief I know and love,” Barb said. “It defines Lester’s dedication to his hometown fire service.”
The Kaiser family is planning a congratulatory party for him at 7 p.m. Nov. 14 at Lincolnville Community Center. County fire chiefs, local firefighters, and anybody who has worked with him have been invited to attend.