After 23 years serving the City of Kenai, Fire Chief Mike Tilly hung his hat up for the last time Friday.
The Kenai Fire Department celebrated Tilly’s career with a retirement party at the station on Wednesday. Firefighters from Seward, Nikiski and Soldotna came to offer well wishes. Former Kenai assistant fire chief James Baisden, now chief at Nikiski Fire Department, presented him with an achievement award –a golden fire ax wall mount.
Tilly, 47, said it has been an honor to work for the community and appreciated the opportunity the city has given him. He served as fire chief the last seven years and said while the department has grown, the job remains the same.
“We are still running red trucks with wet water out of a fire hose,” he said. “When the bells go off you have a chance to help somebody. That’s what brings a lot of people to the career.”
Tilly moved to the Kenai Peninsula from Fairbanks in 1990. He started his firefighting career at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, working for the university fire department. He said four current firefighters from the Kenai station graduated from the same program.
When he started here in 1990, only three firefighters worked on a shift and he was the first paramedic hired by the city. Now one of his last decisions was hiring a seventh paramedic, Ben Nabinger, a local guy who starts Feb 18.
“I still appreciate the chief who sat at this desk and hired me,” he said. “I will always remember the guy who gave me a shot.”
Tilly said he was drawn to working for a small-town fire department because of the opportunity to make more changes and have a bigger voice.
Despite being a small city, he describes Kenai as a big city department shrunken down. Kenai is one of only a handful of career departments in the state, he said. In the City of Kenai, the fire call volume per capita is one of the busiest in the state, he said.
Kenai offers unique challenges for firefighters with its harbor location and city-owned airport, he said.
“You didn’t know if you would run onto an airplane incident, house fire, ambulance or water call,” Tilly said. “The diversity is what attracts guys to the job. You never get bored.”
Tilly said one of the aspects of the job he has come to enjoy is mentoring potential firefighters. The Kenai Central High School job shadow program gives kids an opportunity to be a firefighter for a day.
“It is nice to introduce kids to the fire department,” he said. “It is a win-win because either they love it or don’t. I like to challenge them that it doesn’t matter what you do at the end of the day as long as you have some job satisfaction.”
Tilly said he looks forward to spending time with his son, a sophomore at KCHS and watch him play hockey and football. He said he now has the time to fish and hunt and enjoy some of the great activities the area has to offer.
At the Kenai City Council meeting Wednesday, the council acknowledged Tilly for his service to the city and wished him well on his retirement.
The City of Kenai held a second interview for a new fire chief Friday and expects to name a replacement this week, Tilly said. In the meantime an interim chief is yet to be named.
Tilly said one of the things he will miss most about the job is the camaraderie among the other firefighters and his interactions within the community.
“You always know when you come into the fire station there will be a hot cup of coffee and your friends are here,” he said. “I had the chance to work with some great people. It has been very rewarding.”
Reach Dan Balmer at firstname.lastname@example.org