Conversation with Bahamas newest fire chief

With no firefighting experience, Julian McKenzie was tapped by his community to lead a start-up fire department


FR1 editor in chief Rick Markley donates his time to the International Fire Relief Mission and is just off a trip to build a fire department in the Bahamas. Here's a collection of stories about that effort.

By Rick Markley

Finding a strong leader is a challenge for all fire departments great and small. Those leaders almost always rise through the ranks of the fire service. But what happens when there is no fire service?

The International Fire Relief Mission has spent the past two years assisting the community of Barraterre on the Bahamian island Exuma establish the island's first fire department; IFRM helped with planning, then delivered a fire truck, firefighting gear and instruction.

One of Barraterre's many challenges was naming a fire chief.

To do so, the community met and voted on a person they recommended to the island's police superintendent, who has authority over the new fire service. He agreed with the community and appointed Julian McKenzie, a man with no firefighting experience.

I sat down with Chief McKenzie near the end of our time on the island to talk about his aspirations and fears as he assumes the helm of the Barraterre Community Voluntary Fire Service.

FireRescue1: Tell me about yourself.
Chief McKenzie: I am a builder and have done quite a bit of building projects in this island. I've done a lot of work for the government building schools and cottages for the teachers to live in.

So you understand how to organize people and projects?
Organization is key to any project that needs to succeed. Unless you have a good organization and plan, you will run into trouble because each day people will come in wondering what are they going to do. I have been very successful in that area.

What's been the biggest surprise so far being fire chief?
My big surprise came not only when the fire truck came to the island, but when the other equipment came in and I saw the amount of stuff. I never imagined that it would have been so great. I thought we would get a fire engine and that's it.

But I told Mr. Edgar (Ian Edgar is a private philanthropist who has put money and political clout behind this project) that I didn't know that it was going to rise to this level with all of this equipment and that IFRM is coming down. My heart is going like this now (beating fast). When the days go by and drawing closer, my heart starts pounding and I think 'what can happen when they come?'

I wanted everything to be in place. It was almost horrifying to me. Sometimes when you are planning it is like having two ends in your hand and you want them to meet. I push and I cannot get them together. It was challenging, but I see in the end it worked out for the best. Because, I understand in life that life is about a struggle. Each day has its own situation. I always believe that it is going to work out.

How was the money raised to build the fire department?
The money was raised by constant agitating of people. We sent out letters about our plan and what this can mean for Barraterre. It is amazing that everybody doesn't really see the plan. You try to communicate it to them, but they don't see it. I find that seeing is believing. When they saw what we did, they said, 'Wow, it is here, it is true.'

We contacted places like the banks and big business and virtually every area where we think we can get some money from. (Editor's note: Chief McKenzie doesn't mention it, but he was one of the major donors) Some have donated on two occasions. The telephone company one time donated $1,500 and they came back and donated another $2,000.

It put me then in a position that people were putting their trust and faith in me with their money; this cannot fail. I have to see this come to a success. The money has been coming in, sometimes slow, but it comes in. Luckily, I was able to do everything without saying, 'give me a dollar.' I didn't ask for one dollar.

Did the government donate?
Yes, government gave us one donation of $6,000. That came through the gentleman who represents Exuma in the House of Assembly. We showed him our plans and what we are about. And through his influence, the government said let those boys have $6,000.

How will you fund the fire department from this point on?
We discussed it and realize this must be an on-going process. We will have to continue to raise funds from here on end. The truck will need to be serviced and we will need so many things to make sure the truck is prepared to go whenever it is needed. We will talk to the guys who have already donated to say we still need your help.

You have no tax money coming in?
No. No. It is all donation. We are going to talk to the government to see if we can get a grant of $10,000 to $20,000 per year, or whatever they can afford, that will really help us maintain the equipment. Even with that, we'd still have to have on-going fundraising.

How do you see this fire department in five years?
I believe we will be in our glory. By that I mean we will be trained to really respond to fire in a big way. Because this is a project in Barraterre and other folks are looking at it and see it done in a small, remote community. They would rather see it done maybe in the capital (Georgetown). I don't have a problem with that.

The only thing that comes to mind is the spiritual term can any good thing come out of Nazareth? I'll put it this way: can any good thing come out of Barraterre? Come and see. We have worked hard to make sure we didn't fail.

How big is Barraterre?
We have a big population, but they all don't live here. Barraterre has a colorful story. This was once an island separated by water. Everything we needed on this island came by boat. The people here were very industrious and they did everything necessary that things are better for the coming generation. After a long period of time, the government built a bridge across the islands and that was like a dream come true.

Now Barraterre is envied because it is the port of entry for the entire Exuma. Everything that comes into Exuma, comes through Barraterre. If a sailboat comes from the United States, they will anchor here and take a cab to Georgetown.

Our population is about 80 right now. The biggest population we have is in their 60s and 70s age bracket. We have some young folks here, but not many.

What do you want to see from your fire crew?
Right now we have about 25 young and middle-aged men. I discovered yesterday (when one firefighter went down during a live-burn evolution), that it has to be a rotation. If we get an extreme fire one crew may not be able to endure the heat. So, if they sit down, they will only be watching the fire burn.

But if we have a crew that we can rotate in, we can keep the fire under control and eventually put the fire out. That's why I am going to see that we increase this force to the point where if a disaster of such come about, we can rotate.

Are you looking to pay your volunteers?
I would like to see us rise to a place slightly above volunteers. The communities are not such where there are a lot of money and jobs. That's why it is important for us to get a grant from the government and look at areas like that to give them a stipend. That will sort of motivate them.

How long do you want to be chief?
Not over two years. I'm going to try my best to groom someone and make sure he has all the training. I wouldn't see myself as an island, 'without Julian, it wouldn't work.'

I see somebody else take the baton and do better. Like anything else, you only like to be in the same position for a limited time. I'm not the person who wants too much credit. I can do my best, but don't give me too much credit. Don't praise me.

Are you more calm now after the IFRM visit?
I'm calm. Nothing pushed me to the point where I became frustrated. When I'm hitting that border, I pull back. Then I said, it will work out. Sometimes disappointment is for the best.

How will you train the firefighters?
I will begin to talk with others who didn't come down for the training and see the necessity. (Not all of his 25 firefighters were on hand for the classroom and live-fire training.) For the next several months I will have two sessions of training per month. After we get a little used to what we are doing and I am seeing progress, then I can say we'll come together once a month. We can't come to the point where we say we know it all. We've got to constantly train.

What didn't we talk about?
I'm so pleased that you gentlemen came down and take the time to train us and give us the information to sustain us. That's incredible. To me it is like a miracle. When this small community was chosen, that was the beginning of a movement. It could have gone anywhere else in Exuma. It could have gone to the capital. But that they came to Barraterre, a remote place with elderly folks — that's amazing to me.

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