After a 38-year career in firefighting and six years of leading the Kenai Fire Department, Fire Chief Jeff Tucker celebrated his retirement on Friday and officially passed the torch to his Deputy Chief Tony Prior.
“Thirty eight years is a long time to do any one job, so it’s a good feeling,” Tucker said on Friday. “But it’s also bittersweet to be leaving now, with all the activity that’s happening around the world that’s directly related to EMS and fire service.”
Tucker was referring to the new coronavirus pandemic that has forced communities across the globe, including Alaska, to implement quarantines, business closures and mass social distancing. Last week the local public safety departments, including the Kenai Fire Department, closed their lobbies to the public in order to prevent a potential outbreak of the virus. Tucker had planned his retirement well before the virus became a major issue in the United States, but he said the timing of the outbreak has made it harder to walk away.
“I’m very proud to have worked here,” Tucker said. “I think the personnel who work for the City of Kenai are, like any other fire department, great individuals. We’ve had retirements and growth and changes, and our call volume has steadily increased over the years since I’ve been here so we’ve been providing more and more assistance to the community.”
Tucker began his firefighting career in Gainesville, Florida, as part of the Alachua County Department of Emergency Services after obtaining his degree at the University of Florida. Back then he was working as an EMT and paramedic, and when his department merged with the City of Alachua’s Fire Department he took on the role of firefighter as well.
Tucker’s career in Alaska began in 2002, when he was hired as the fire chief for Central Emergency Services in Soldotna. Tucker was at CES for three years before taking on the same role at the North Star Volunteer Fire Department outside of Fairbanks. In 2014 Tucker returned to the peninsula and has led the Kenai Fire Department since that time.
Tucker said that being able to wear so many different hats and play so many roles while serving his community, from paramedic to fire marshal to fire chief, is what he enjoyed most about being in the fire service for all these years.
In 2018, Tucker was awarded the Warren B. Cummings Chief Officer of the Year Award at the annual Alaska Fire Chiefs Association Leadership Summit for his role in helping obtain millions of dollars in state and federal grants for equipment and capital improvement projects for his department. Recently, Tucker wrote a grant that secured almost a million dollars in federal funding for new breathing equipment for his department as well as for the Nikiski Fire Department and Central Emergency Services. Tucker said the Kenai Fire Department also had a new fire truck arriving soon, a parting gift for his old crew.
Tucker also serves as the president of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, which is one of the eight divisions of the International Fire Chiefs Association and which represents 10 western states as well as the Western Pacific islands. Tucker said that he plans to step down from that role in August.
“Working with the Fire Chiefs Association, working on legislative issues, working on the improvement of the fire service not only within the department but on a statewide basis is what I’ve been most proud of,” Tucker said. “Trying to improve the services we all provide to our communities.”
When asked if his retirement plans included hitting the road in a Winnebago, never to be heard from again, Tucker responded, “That’s very close.”
“Excepts it’s not a Winnebago, it’s a fifth-wheel,” Tucker added. He and his wife, Patty, planned to start their travels around the country in July, but Tucker said that with everything that’s happened lately his schedule is currently up in the air.
Prior, who took over as fire chief on Friday, has 25 years of experience as a firefighter, with 23 of those at the Kenai Fire Department. Prior moved to Alaska in 1994 and started volunteering at the Nikiski Fire Department in between construction jobs.
While finishing up his training in Nikiski, a position opened up at the Kenai Fire Department and he decided to apply “just for the experience,” Prior said.
Prior got the job and has been with the Kenai Fire Department ever since, becoming the battalion chief in 2009 and being reclassified as the deputy chief last year.
Tucker said that he was confident in Prior’s ability to take over as chief, considering his long history of service within the community.
“Chief Prior has been working for the City of Kenai for 23 years, he’s got a lot of experience, and he’s well respected in our department and in the community, so I think he’ll do fine,” Tucker said. “His ability to step up into the role will be pretty seamless, and I’m very happy that he got the opportunity to do that.”
Prior said he understands the unique circumstances surrounding his promotion to fire chief, and his short-term focus is on the coronavirus pandemic and making sure his department is ready to respond in whatever way is needed.
“Obviously it’s not necessarily the best time to be taking over,” Prior said on Friday. “But we’ve got a group of folks that have been here for a long time and are totally capable of doing what needs to be done. The community can expect to receive the same high level of service that we’ve always provided.”