Luther Fire Chief Jason Miller has been offered the Fire Chief position in Marlow, Oklahoma. His last day as Luther’s chief is July 17, 2017.
Chief Miller has served as Luther’s first paid fire chief for the last six years. He said the decision was tough, but the opportunity to lead a bigger department in a city where his family has generational roots ultimately led him to accept the offer and move to southwest Oklahoma.
Luther loses the fire chief who leads the Town’s volunteer fire department. He’s known for his calming voice on the radio during calls, firm leadership with his firefighters, strict standards when it comes to training, and his knack for data collection. Miller says LFD responds to about 400 calls a year for fire and emergency medical in a vast jurisdiction. Calls range from responding to wrecks on the Turner Turnpike, structure fires, medical emergencies or grassfires, even crime scenes; all with one paid chief and a dedicated band of volunteers.
Town watchers note Miller has also provided administrative leadership for the Town itself. Need to know something about the water tower? Ask Chief Miller. What about the REAP grant? Ask Chief Miller, he wrote it. What about those abandoned houses in town? Chief Miller has the data. And on and on. Institutional knowledge is a valuable asset that Luther keeps losing because of its high turnover rate in employees. Miller served the town for six years, and undeniably has invaluable knowledge about the Town, something he promises to share when he’ll be a phone call away at his new post.
Not particularly looking for another job, Chief Miller said he got a call late one evening less than a month ago from a mentor who told him about the position in Marlow. It’s a small city with about 5,000 residents (making it about four times bigger than Luther). There are a couple of other paid firefighters to help share the work load, and a volunteer force of about 20 men and women. “You’d be perfect for the job,” Miller was told. And after a whirlwind series of interviews, conversations, tours and reference checks, Marlow got its new Fire Chief in Jason Miller.
Looking back six years ago, Miller reflects on how “green” or inexperienced he was for the job. The old saying about “trial by fire” has an extra note of truth when you’re talking about leading an actual fire department. He had a steep learning curve back then, when he was new to firefighting after a career with American Airlines. That all changed in August 2012. Don’t we remember it, “like it was yesterday?” Five years later, the scars remain of the inferno that claimed 50 homes and burned 2,600 acres, and licked the outskirts of Town, including the school, many more homes and businesses.
Miller remembers the horror and the fear. “I was like a deer looking into headlights,” he said. He recalls how the late Jon Hansen, who led the Oklahoma Council on Firefighter Training, put his arm around him and said, “Chiefy, this is what we’re going to go.” And they did it – although there was tremendous loss of property, the fire force bravely battled to save Town proper.
Miller said that experience showed him he was either going to quit, or fight for the Luther Fire Department and become the best leader he could be.
If another emergency happens in our town, are we in better hands five years later? Miller unequivocally says yes, with or without him. That’s a sign of a good leader, having confidence his team is trained for the inevitable fire, disaster or other emergency that will come our way.
That is not to say there are not frustrations that Chief Miller will be glad to leave behind. Some of them are well-noted, or well-gossiped about. Considering that the Fire Department operates mostly on donated apparatus and uses aging equipment, except for the new command vehicle and a 2007 water tanker, funding is an ongoing issue. Miller’s salary has been $33,000, compared to the police chief’s salary that is well above $45,000. But when you love your job, it’s not always about the money, until it is. The City of Marlow is able to offer Miller more income, plus compensation for “after hours” work when he is on call, or training his volunteers after they get off of their day jobs, and other duties required outside of normal office hours. In a high-stress job where the bottom line is to make sure your firefighters get back home safe to their families, Miller is looking forward to having a city back him in making public safety a priority, and compensating him for it.
However, Miller insists that this move is not a reflection on the new Town Board of Trustees, at all. It’s just the timing. With the new board in office just a couple of months, Miller marvels at what has been done already to support the fire department and also move the Town forward on key infrastructure issues. Brighter days are ahead for the Town of Luther, he said.
And so the goodbyes begin. Chief Miller will unwind his duties at LFD to hand off to the next leader, to be determined. The gut-wrenching talks have been given to his force (there were tears), Town leaders and family. Over and over the classic scenario is playing out of being happy for the Millers, but sad to let them go.
Chief Miller will put on his Marlow Fire Department helmut in just a couple of weeks. His wife and daughter will follow him to their new home by the end of the summer. “I am excited for him; and thrilled that he is being appreciated for what he has accomplished,” said his wife, Shanna Miller. They’ve already calculated the drive-time; it’s less than two hours back home for visits.