Mayor Gray names interim fire chief to replace embattled leader

'I know what the problems are,' 20-year veteran says

bfortune@herald-leader.comMarch 10, 2011 

Assistant Fire Chief Keith Jackson, a 20-year veteran of the Division of Fire and Emergency Services, was named interim chief Wednesday by Mayor Jim Gray.

Gray said he selected Jackson for proven leadership skills. Jackson, 45, a Lexington native and one of four assistant chiefs, said at a news conference Wednesday morning he had "hit the ground rolling."

"We've already started this morning at 9 o'clock, working on some of the issues dealing with the contract," he said, referring to the firemen's collective bargaining agreement, which is being negotiated.

Among his top priorities, Jackson said, will be to improve communications within the fire department and address problems such as the budget, an area of responsibility in his current position as assistant chief for administration.

"I know what the problems are and how to begin ... making improvements," Jackson said in a news release from the mayor's office.

With Jackson in place, Gray said, work will begin immediately to improve the department, including operating within the budget and focusing on "systemic" causes of chronic overtime.

Last week, Gray asked Fire Chief Robert Hendricks to resign after expressing concerns about Hendricks' failure to manage the division's budget — in particular, significant overtime expenditures for firefighters — and division morale and a lack of leadership.

When Hendricks did not step down, the mayor directed the city's law department to look at "initiating formal proceedings" to dismiss him. Gray declined to discuss that process Wednesday. Hendricks is on paid leave.

Jackson, who has served in the Army Reserves for 24 years, already has displayed strong leadership qualities, the mayor said. Jackson served 18 months of active duty in 2006 and 2007, including 12 months as an operations officer for a unit conducting convoys in northern Iraq.

"Keith will be developing a solid business operating plan," Gray said. It will examine the most efficient use of staff and resources "to address weaknesses and maximize strength."

The mayor said Jackson has recommended "setting the standard for fire and EMS services across the nation."

"That is not something I asked him to do. He said that on his own," Gray said.

In addition to improving communication throughout the fire department, Jackson identified diversity in hiring as an issue that will require his immediate attention. The most recent class of firefighters and paramedics was all white and all male.

A graduate of the University of Kentucky, Jackson worked his way up through the ranks as a firefighter and a paramedic. As a lieutenant major, he supervised the hazardous-materials team.

Asked whether Jackson's role as interim chief put him in position to be named the permanent chief, Gray said Jackson had indicated interest in the job. "But he's not setting himself up today for that," the mayor said. "What he's doing today is the job we've got to do today ... restore confidence, trust, provide vision and leadership in this department."

Jackson first wanted to become a firefighter when, as a child, he passed Fire Station No. 1 on East Third Street on his way to Constitution Elementary School from his home in Bluegrass-Aspendale.

Jackson was joined Wednesday by his mother and his grandparents. More than a dozen firefighters also attended the news conference.

Assistant Chief Michael Gribbin said of Jackson after the news conference, "He's a 20-year veteran of the department. He is respected by the members of the department. I think he will do a fine job."

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