Kotzebue Fire Chief Kelly Marcus didn’t always dream of a career in public safety, but once he got a taste, it felt right. Now, he’s retiring from the job at the end of the month and is ready to move to something new.
Marcus, who was born and raised in East Tennessee, came to Kotzebue as a teacher. He grew up as an avid Boy Scout and a lover of the outdoors, but aside from working as a lifeguard for a few summers, Marcus had no emergency services experience prior to coming to Kotzebue. As he started volunteering for the Kotzebue Fire Department back in 2011, he immediately felt like he was in the right place.
“It was exciting,” he said. “You never know what’s coming, you never know what the call would be.”
From volunteer to part-time employee, from working as a full-time firefighter to becoming the lieutenant and captain, Marcus said his transitions within the department were quick. He received certifications as EMT-1, 2, then 3 and a firefighter 2, and eventually became in charge of all aspects of the department.
Whether he was working with patients in the back of the ambulance or fighting fires, he said, he enjoyed the pace of the job.
“I thought, ‘This is fun, I can do this,’ ” he said. “It’s hard work. You don’t stop until the job is done, and that’s sort of my mentality.”
One of the hardest calls he’s responded to was a fire in the Bayside Inn and Restaurant on Front Street. At 30 below zero, in gusts up to 60 mph and snowy conditions, firefighters went through nearly 430,000 water gallons throughout multiple days to put out the fire. Then they spent days searching for a person who went missing during the fire, and later found his body.
Providing emergency response services in a small community can be challenging, especially given the fact that you will see people you serve in the store the next day, he said.
“A lot of time, you see people on the worst day of their life. A lot of trauma, a lot of tragedy,” he said. “The longer I’ve worked here ... the closer I am to the people. ... I really liked that part about our job because it’s immediate feedback, but also it was really hard.”
At the department level, one of the main challenges Marcus observed was high turnover.
Since 2009, about 35 people have come through the department, he said, which meant the staff needed to provide a lot of training.
But the department has undergone significant improvements throughout the past decade as well, he said. When Marcus joined the department, it was more volunteer-dependent and the response was much slower. Now, it takes employees less than 5 minutes to get out the door for a call, he said.
“Over the years, the department has gotten better and better,” he said. “I wouldn’t be leaving the department if I didn’t think ... we’re in a place where there are people that are going to keep it going.”
Marcus doesn’t have a set plan for what he wants to do next, but he said he wants to stay in Kotzebue where he can enjoy his community, job opportunities and the outdoors. First, he wants to take some time off and work on home projects, run his small dog team and create happy memories with his growing family.
“Kotzebue has become home,” he said.
In the meantime, Chloe Belflower, EMS captain at the department, will be taking over Marcus’ responsibilities as chief until the city fills his position.
An ideal candidate for a fire chief position, Marcus said, will know about firefighting, ambulance service as well as search and rescue.
“You’ve got to be able to do a little bit of everything at this job,” he said, “but we don’t do anything alone.”
Another crucial qualification is wanting to help the residents, Marcus added.
“The main thing is caring about the patients that we take care of and caring about the community,” Marcus said. “Because a lot of times in EMS and fire, you can’t save a life, they are already gone. So what is our role? The role is to make the situation better. We do the hard job so that the family doesn’t have to.”