George Kahl, known throughout the San Gabriel Valley as a fire chief's chief because of his many innovations in paramedic and fire prevention programs, has a new challenge--reconciling security and fire protection in the U.S. State Department's overseas offices.
After 32 years with what Kahl calls the "small but mighty" Monrovia Fire Department, the chief will join the State Department's foreign buildings operation as a consultant in fire prevention and protection planning.
Kahl, 55, said he was planning to retire anyway when the new opportunity arose, and he felt the opportunity to travel was too good to pass up. He emphasized that he will be a private contractor and not a federal employee, a fact important to a man characterized by his peers as a self-motivated, independent thinker.
He will be based in Washington with a one-year renewable contract. "There is a lot of flexibility, so I am not tied into a long-range federal position," he said.
The government's fire security program is sorely needed, Kahl said. "The problem is that if you make a building secure against terrorist attack you limit egress in case of fire. So we will try to key the two elements together. The building must be immune from hostile forces and still permit people to get out in case of fire."
Kahl will consult at any State Department building, including embassies, all over the world.
13 Years as Chief
Kahl, leaving Monrovia after 13 years as chief, will be missed by his colleagues throughout the county, said Carl Johnson, Covina fire chief and president of the Foothill Fire Chiefs Assn. "He's done a great job," Johnson said, adding that Kahl was the group's representative to the California Fire Chiefs' Assn. and chairman of the paramedic committee for the county Fire Chiefs Assn.
Charles Masten, El Monte fire chief, said, "He is one of the most highly respected chiefs in the area because of what he's done despite the size of his department."
Masten cited a long list of innovations at the Monrovia department, which has 34 firefighters and four support personnel.
First With Paramedics
Under Kahl's leadership, Monrovia was the first San Gabriel Valley city to implement a paramedic program. That was during his first year as chief in 1972.
"At least 70% of our responses deal with medical emergencies," Kahl said, "so I felt it was important." His interest in paramedics led to his appointment as vice chairman of the county Emergency Medical Commission, a citizens' group reporting to the Department of Health Services.
Monrovia also was ahead of many other cities in imposing a ban on wood-shingle roofs, mandating smoke alarms in all occupied buildings and using a large-diameter hose and aerial ladder unit to respond to all fire calls, Masten said.
Fight Against Fireworks
Kahl also won the hearts of other fire chiefs when he became a leader in the fight to defeat state legislation which would have preempted cities' rights to ban the sale of fireworks. (Fireworks are banned in Monrovia.)
"I don't believe fireworks are safe and sane," Kahl said. "I call them unsafe and insane. If they are handled by responsible adults in a sober condition, they would be OK, but that is not the case. If one little kid loses an eye over misuse of a sparkler, it is not worth it."
Built-in protection is the future for fire service, said Kahl, who added, "I am probably the only fire chief in the county whose home is equipped with automatic sprinklers.
Better Than Detectors
"Smoke detectors are a boon and automatic sprinklers are better. Fire equipment just doesn't do the same thing because there is always a lag in response time." Kahl installed a sprinkler system to set an example for others, he said. He highly recommends the system, saying it costs only $500 to $800 to install in a house under construction and about $1,200 to install in an old house.
In his new job Kahl will monitor fire alarm systems by satellites. Overseas inspections can be done by hand-held computers and relayed to Washington by satellite, he said. "There are a lot of new advances that are very exciting," he said, "and I will bring them back to Monrovia."
Kahl intends to return to Monrovia, and his wife Joan will remain here. "I'm not sure we want to live in Washington and I don't know how much traveling I will do," he said. "Monrovia is our home so at least in the beginning my wife and I will commute back and forth." Kahl has four adult children.
42 Years in Monrovia
Monrovia has been home for 42 years and, he said, "I would stay here if it weren't for the challenge of the new job. We have had great support from the community and that is not true in many areas, where fire departments are viewed as a necessary evil and tax drain.
"We've always had good City Council support, and service clubs are financially supportive when we need new equipment."
Kahl's professional reputation could have enabled him to move to a larger fire department but, he said, "not a better one."
A Working Chief
He likes the challenge of a small community--Monrovia has a population of 32,000--where the chief is a working chief rather than purely an administrator. Earlier this week he manned the dispatch console so his three dispatchers could take a special training course.
The city council is taking applications for the job, which pays $3,145 to $4,090 monthly. One of the leading contenders, Kahl said, will be Assistant Chief Mark Foote, who will serve as acting chief when Kahl begins his new job June 10.
"I've never regretted becoming a firefighter," Kahl said. "I became interested when I was at Monrovia High School and got involved in an Explorer Scout post. The sponsors were U.S. Forest Service employees and it was so interesting I went to work for the Forest Service for five years. Then I came here (to the Monrovia Fire Department) and it's been a great career."