Four candidates for Columbia fire chief give views

Wednesday, February 16, 2011 | 7:05 p.m. CST; updated 10:58 a.m. CST, Thursday, February 17, 2011

COLUMBIA — The man who replaces retiring Columbia Fire Chief Bill Markgraf will face the challenge of guiding an agency that has had the same leader for more than 22 years.

All four candidates, whose names were released Monday, are Missouri natives. Each has expressed admiration for the fire department they're vying to lead.


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  • Stations in district: 1
  • Personnel, uniformed: 12; civilian: 10
  • Area served: 70 square miles
  • District population: 7,000 residents

Liberty Fire Department where he worked for seven years until August 2010:

  • Stations in department: 3
  • Personnel, uniformed: 49; civilian: 1
  • Area served: 70 square miles
  • Population: 30,000

Work experience: Birch started his career in the Kansas City Fire Department where he worked for 27 years, working his way up through the ranks and serving as deputy chief of several divisions including training, administration and support services. He was a shift commander when he retired to take a position as fire chief of Liberty, where he worked for seven years. He took the position temporarily at Holt because the department needed someone to help out. He intends to work in a larger community.

Goals: "I'd want to get familiar and get comfortable with what's going on there," Birch said. "A lot of cities are having economic issues. I'm pretty strong as far as budgeting and finances. 

"I would be talking to all employees and getting a feel for what they think the needs are."

Proudest achievement: Birch said that while he was deputy chief of Kansas City, he led the project to replace 44 old trucks in the fleet, bringing the average age of trucks from 10 years to 1.5 years and reducing maintenance costs from $2 million to $600,000. He also standardized training and equipment.

In Liberty, Birch outsourced the emergency medical services billing process, increasing revenue from $400,000 to about $1 million.

Philosophy: "My philosophy is to always be professional," Birch said. Members of fire departments are "there to serve the community and provide the best service that they can.

"My goal is to make sure that members of the department have the correct apparatus and equipment and training possible to make sure they can do the best job and as safely as possible.

"My leadership style I like to think of more as a coaching mind-set. I like to take the time to explain what it is that we need done and why we're having to do it a certain way. I like to think of myself as a good mentor."



  • Stations in department: 34
  • Personnel, uniformed: 1,190; civilian: 169 
  • Area served: 318 square miles
  • City population: 441,545 

Work experience: Grote is a third-generation firefighter, with 50 years of family firefighting in his background. He began working with the Kansas City Fire Department in 1986 at age 20. He served at all ranks and is now deputy chief of emergency operations.

Goals: "I have only one goal, and that is to continue the level of excellence (Columbia firefighters) have provided to the city of Columbia. That would be my No. 1 goal. I think that the No. 1 thing that stands out is that they're very involved in the community. They get very high customer satisfaction scores. They have a sense of tradition about them."

Proudest achievement: "My proudest achievement, if I had to pick one, would be my involvement in the Kansas City Fire Department's labor management partnership where all the decisions in the department that handle rank and file are handled on a consensus basis through committees," Grote said.

"It's important because it provides the foundation to implement positive, proactive programs within the department that ultimately benefits the citizens of Kansas City."

Philosophy: "My philosophy is that, one, you have to represent the men and women of the fire department, but you also have to represent the administration of the city as well," Grote said.

"I believe in professional development. If you communicate well with people and tell them what the goals of a project are, what their resources are and any parameters that they have to stay in ... I let them work on the project independently and expect them to do a good job.

"When you give people that respect, that's what you get."



  • Stations in department: 8
  • Personnel, uniformed: 144; civilian: 23
  • Area served: 180 square miles
  • City population: 160,000

Work experience: Solberg worked part time in a hospital during high school and joined the paramedic program after he graduated. He worked at the Lee's Summit Fire Department for 30 years and came up through the ranks, serving as fire chief for his last nine years. He moved to Peoria, Ariz., a little more than two years ago to serve as fire chief.

Goals: "To build upon the good reputation that Columbia Fire Department has within the state and even in the nation."

Solberg also said he wants to "try to see what initiatives I've done ... that would be a good fit for Columbia." He said that if there were interest, he could provide leadership and coordination in the accreditation process, which he said helps a community by validating the efficiency and fiscal responsibility of a fire department. He talked about technology that could improve efficiency, including a Web conferencing system he successfully initiated in Lee's Summit and Peoria.

Proudest achievement: There are many, he said, "but I think that any time you can look back 30 years or even two years and see that you've improved or enhanced the service delivery to the community, you can be proud of that. I've never been contented with the basic or the normal. I always look for what we can do better."

Guiding the Peoria Fire Department through its recent accreditation was a significant accomplishment, he said.

Philosophy: "Getting the organization to be able to accomplish the things that are and should be important to the community that we serve. Once you get the organization on track with that ... you can really get some innovative things done. I think in the fire department we've been slow to embrace technology or innovative thinking or approaches. That could be anything from how you deploy the fire trucks and personnel to how you deliver training."

In Lee's Summit and Peoria, Solberg initiated an internal Web conferencing system to deliver morning briefings and educational training without taking people away from their stations. He won grants to fund initial equipment and setup costs, and the department now pays only a minimal subscription fee for the system.

"The concept was we always thought we had to move trucks around and meet up for training," Solberg said, adding that that was a waste of fuel and took people away from where they needed to be.



  • Stations in department: 9
  • Personnel, uniformed: 136; civilian: 4
  • Area served: 62 square miles
  • City population: 100,383

Work experience: Witt began working with the Sullivan Fire Department in 1977 at age 14 because "it was a way to give back to the community." He assisted firefighters with operational duties such as rolling hoses, and he helped put out brush fires.

In 1983 he began working with the Boone County Fire Protection District as a resident firefighter. He lived at a station for five years while attending MU's School of Business Management. He transferred to the Columbia Fire Department in 1986 and is now the deputy fire chief, second in charge of all operations, including response, budgeting, planning and leadership.

Goals: "To continue the excellence in customer service and improve our efficiency in some of our processes." Dedication to customer service is Markgraf's legacy, Witt said.

Witt would like to decentralize training and keep operators in their service areas during the day. Right now, half the staff trains in a centralized location in the early part of the day while the other half trains later in the day. When firefighters from one station leave for training, staff from another station must cover calls for them, making response time longer. Decentralized training would allow firefighters to train in their locations.

Proudest achievement: "Right now it is the opportunity to be considered – the potential to be the leader of this department," Witt said. "Having the opportunity to lead the Columbia Fire Department is a dream come true."

"This is a great organization," said Witt, who has toured departments across the state. He said he believes the Columbia Fire Department has a stronger commitment to training than any other department he has seen. 

Philosophy: Witt said his philosophy is the same as the department's: "The customer is always No. 1. No. 2 is the department as a whole. No. 3 is the individual members of the department." His parallel commitment is to do the "right thing at the right time for the right reason."

He uses those six elements to sum up his philosophy.

"Everything that we do – from the color of our fire trucks to the people that we hire to the equipment we use – we look at with those two sets of three goals," Witt said.

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Delcia Crockett February 16, 2011 | 7:48 p.m.

From biographical stats: these are some strong points made, showing that any one of these candidates could serve Columbia well, and for the long haul. Might prove difficult to make the final decision to cut to one, but doing so will take nothing from the others named here, as their earned credentials speak for themselves.

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