Lexington's first black fire chief Keith Jackson takes the heat and then some

jmadden@herald-leader.comFebruary 8, 2014 

It's 5:15 Tuesday morning, and Lexington Fire Chief Keith Jackson's alarm clock is ringing.

Jackson, a self-proclaimed gym rat, is out the door and on the treadmill in the gym at Fire House Station 1 around 6:30 a.m. By 9:30 a.m., he's leading an executive meeting that focuses on the division's budget, problems and future plans. Two hours later, Jackson makes his way to Station 5, where he talks with firefighters and reminisces about his time there as a paramedic.

This is a typical day for Jackson. He works out daily, meets and eats with his staff, shows up at fires and sometimes, maybe fueled by his nostalgia, he rides on the truck.

All of that is part of an effort to lead by example, set a tone and send a message that everybody matters. But it's also about establishing change and pursuing a larger vision.

Nearly three years ago, Jackson, 48, was asked to help a wounded department rebound.

Many of the department's problems were laid out in 2011, when then-newly elected Mayor Jim Gray received a 67-page report that outlined a multitude of issues that plagued Lexington's public safety agencies, especially the fire department. Among the issues listed were the former chief's failure to manage the division's budget, significant overtime expenditures, poor morale and a lack of leadership. At the time, Gray said the report confirmed symptoms that had existed for years. The mayor wanted a change, and in March 2011, Gray asked for the resignation of then-Chief Robert Hendricks, under whom Jackson served as assistant chief of administration. Soon after, Gray named Jackson interim fire chief.

Jackson took that role with no promise that he would be the chief, and he says he wasn't even sure he wanted the role. He took it, and in June 2012 Jackson was hired as the permanent chief, filling a void and etching his name in history books by becoming the city's first black fire chief.

Gray said he appointed Jackson because of his work ethic — the thing inside that makes him resist the urge to hit the snooze button when that alarm clock rings at 5:15 a.m. — and his diverse background as a leader. Jackson, the mayor said, possessed "the leadership and organizational skills that come from commanding 850 soldiers in Iraq, part of his service in the Army Reserves."

The ability to focus, "lead from the front" and make tough decisions is exactly why Jackson was the man for the job, Gray said. "Leadership is often about going against the grain, making tough decisions, taking criticism and push back," Gray said. "When I think of Keith, I think of these words: faith, family, friends, discipline, loyalty, country, community, service. Those attributes make for leadership, and they're why I appointed Keith Jackson to the role."

Humble beginnings

Jackson, who comes across as soft-spoken and somewhat reserved, will tell you that his leadership style reflects an upbringing that was fueled by the teachings of his mother and grandparents.

Jackson's grandfather, Richard Briscoe, taught him hard work. As a boy, Jackson wondered why Briscoe, now 89, got up at 4:30 a.m. when he did not have to be at work until 6 a.m. He later learned that his grandfather, a man who didn't graduate from the fifth grade, got up early to study before work. Jackson said his grandmother Cora Briscoe, 87, taught him love.

His mother, Beverly Miller, taught him perseverance.

"I did a lot of growing up with Keith," said Miller, 68, who had Jackson when she was 19. "He was a very easy child to raise. He's always been very quiet and shy. He was an old soul."

Jackson grew up in the '60s and '70s. He lived in two of Lexington's former housing projects — Bluegrass-Aspendale and Charlotte Court — with his mother, younger brother and twin sisters. (He has three other siblings on his father's side.)

Life was difficult.

Miller was a single mother who worked two jobs, so Jackson took on responsibility early. At 6, he said he watched his siblings and made "dinner" — peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Jackson is proud of his upbringing because "it made me who I am," but he never wanted to go back to the projects. He wanted a way out.

During his college years at the University of Kentucky, Jackson lived without boundaries. His priorities were displaced and his grades suffered. Jackson pledged Kappa Alpha Psi, a collegiate Greek-letter fraternity, and — in an effort to seek guidance and make prudent decisions — joined the campus Army ROTC program.

Jackson graduated from UK with a bachelor's degree in communications in 1987. That year, he also graduated as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

Jackson served 27 years in the reserves. He 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.

In 1991, Jackson joined the Division of Fire. He worked his way up through the ranks as a firefighter and a paramedic. As a lieutenant major, he supervised the hazardous-materials team.

After serving in Iraq, Jackson had to make several adjustments, including getting comfortable "hearing doors slam." They were a reminder of explosions.

Jackson reached his lowest point in life shortly after he and his wife of 14 years divorced in 2008.

"I remember lying on the floor of an empty house and thinking 'I should just move to Mexico,'" he said.

Instead, Jackson focused on principles through his spirituality — his moral compass.

Jackson is an avid reader. He just finished a book about the life of Quanah Parker and the Comanche Indians.

Jackson travels, golfs and referees high school football games. He also spends a lot of his time with his daughters, Karrington, 12, and Taylor, 17, who live in Louisville. He says they keep him busy with school and athletics.

"They're my heart," he said. "They're well-rounded kids. I'll do anything and everything I can to ensure that they have the opportunities I didn't."

Pursuing a dream

Jackson says he wasn't eager to become interim chief — or fire chief.

At the time, he was the "newest assistant chief and was just trying to be the best at the job." But as a leader who sets goals and holds people accountable he saw the potential of the department. In his mind, the department's success would be based on three things: Expansion, leadership and being one with the community.

The path to success would be one with many twists and turns.

Chris Bartley, president of the Lexington Professional Firefighters Local 526, said the majority of the department's issues came from the economic crisis in 2007 and 2008 and "politics."

In 2008, during Mayor Jim Newberry's administration, the city began "browning out" fire trucks — taking them out of service for several hours or an entire day — because of budget and staffing shortages. In 2009, the department's overtime budget became a growing concern.

Bartley and other union leaders were interviewed in 2011 by Mayor Gray's transition team, and much of their interview focused on the need for more training and equipment. They also noted that the department's administration had "no trust, respect or leadership."

In addition to the problems outlined in the commission's report, the Division of Fire soon learned that the Department of Justice had launched an investigation into the department's lack of diversity. Jackson said that investigation is ongoing.

As the department's newest leader, Jackson had to deal with all of these issues. He began focusing on structure, training and education. He also realized the fire department "had a lot of excess, so we had to streamline."

The department eliminated some positions, reorganized offices, and put a stronger emphasis on training.

Jackson implemented the Company Officers Course, a four-week leadership training session that teaches firefighters and newly promoted lieutenants many of "the basics." The course, which is in its second year, graduated 14 firefighters Friday.

Diversity and minority initiatives started after an in-house diversity team was created to recruit more minorities and women. Jackson appointed the department's first female assistant chief, and the last three fire classes graduated three black men, two Hispanic men and four women — including one black woman. The department is pushing to increase those figures.

"You have to have a diverse public safety entity and I knew that from the get-go," Jackson said. "The biggest issue for us is we don't have a large population."

In order to improve employment, the Urban County Council allowed the department to spend more than $2.5 million to hire new firefighters last year and add two fire classes. Last March, the council approved more than $1 million in overtime for firefighters, eliminating the need for brownouts.

"We can't close stations," said Jackson, who is in charge of a $56 million budget that pays the salaries of about 540 firefighters and operates 23 fire station houses. "We can't eliminate people and jobs, because everyone matters."

Through his first year as chief, Jackson often dealt with internal issues; however, in December 2012 he had to deal with a very public matter.

Lauren Roady, a pedestrian, was struck and killed by a fire engine. The fire truck, driven by firefighter Christopher Presley, was making a left turn from West Main Street onto South Broadway when Roady was hit. The truck was not on an emergency run at the time of the accident, and its lights and sirens were not activated. Presley was on paid leave and recently announced his retirement.

After the tragedy, Jackson wrote a letter to the family, expressing his condolences. He said he wanted the family and the community to know "that we care" and "we don't hide from issues."

"We're not just an entity that serves you. We hurt too," he said.

Loyalty and leadership

Thinking back to when Jackson interviewed to be interim chief, Clay Mason, the city's public safety commissioner, said Jackson impressed him immediately. Mason said he knew then that Jackson was the perfect choice to move the department forward.

"TEA was the plan. Training, Education and Accountability," Mason recalled. "He has followed through. He's made difficult choices about staffing, fiscal responsibility, promotions and even demotions and discipline."

Bartley credits Jackson with helping the department move forward; however, he said, "I think there was a lot of blame towards Rob Hendricks that wasn't fair."

"Honestly, the things that have changed are because the chief has been allowed to do his job," Bartley said. "Jackson brought more of an understanding that the department wasn't going to expand without good labor relations."

Bartley said an open-door policy has allowed excellent labor relations between firefighters, administration and the city.

But there's still more work to do. Bartley said repairs have to be made to some of the department's emergency vehicles and buildings. The department's administration hopes to add three more fire stations and move Station 2 from New Circle Road to Murray Drive. Jackson said a fire station should be about four minutes away from communities.

He also wants to replace the six-story training tower that was torn down nearly two years ago. The fire department stopped using the tower, which was built in 1969, because of structural problems caused by the building's age.

Jackson said the department is working on a five-year time frame to implement the changes and has a system in place to replace fire equipment every five to 10 years.

Jackson says he is always planning, always thinking ahead. He understands the importance of the fire department and the history of his appointment, but he said he hopes it's one of transition and is remembered for equality.

"I want my legacy to be that I made a difference in not only the Lexington fire department but the community of Lexington," he said. "That firefighters are citizen servants recognized for our contributions to the profession and the community we serve."

Justin Madden: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety

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