From the Chief’s Perspective: A One-on-One Discussion with St. Louis City Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson 
Since November 2007, Dennis Jenkerson has worked as St. Louis City Fire Chief, using his 35 years of experience as a firefighter to help manage one of the state’s largest fire departments. In his role as St. Louis City Fire Chief, Jenkerson oversees 36 fire trucks and nearly 1,000 employees across 30 fire stations, helping to ensure the public safety of the residents in the St. Louis community.

We recently spoke with Chief Jenkerson to get his perspective on the value of the relationship between the St. Louis City Fire Department and other local first responder agencies. We also discussed some of the challenges and successes his department has experienced during his tenure.

Q. From the St. Louis City Fire Department’s perspective, how important is the relationship between firefighters and other first responders, particularly in the medical community?

First, I have a great deal of respect for first responders in the medical community. After all, I live with one. My wife is a nurse and worked as a flight nurse for Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital for several years.

The relationship between our firefighters and other first responders in the community is very important. Our paths intersect on a regular basis, especially during emergency situations. Fire and EMT often respond to emergency calls at the same time. In those cases, we’re working together to care for victims as effectively and efficiently as possible.

We also regularly collaborate at major events around St. Louis, including Mardi Gras, the World Series, Fair St. Louis, and the GO! St. Louis Marathon. There is so much work that goes on behind the scenes. In fact, we spend months and months planning for these events to help ensure the public’s safety.

Fortunately, through various events, committees and meetings, we’re creating new opportunities to connect with other first responders outside of emergency situations. These types of interactions ideally lead to better working relationships.

Q. Can you recall a specific situation where the St. Louis City Fire Department collaborated with medical first responders in a difficult situation to achieve a positive outcome?

Approximately two years ago, straight-line winds caused a large outdoor tent to collapse near Busch Stadium, leading to mass casualties. We put a call out to multiple first responder agencies, petitioning for additional support.

Thankfully, various EMTs, police and fire agencies responded to the scene. They helped us set up triage areas onsite and transported patients to a select number of area hospitals. As a result, a seemingly chaotic event was handled exceptionally well because of the cooperation and unyielding support from these various agencies.

Q. What is the St. Louis City Fire Department doing to improve/enhance the working relationship and communication with other first responders?

Given how much we interact with other first responder agencies, we’re always looking for opportunities to improve our relationship and communication, so we can be more effective and efficient when we collaborate during emergency events.

For example, our EMS staff meets regularly with various hospitals’ emergency nurses, physicians and directors to ensure that our current operational procedures are correct. We want to be sure everyone is following best practices. They also help us review equipment, so we can compare how certain equipment functions in the field compared to how it works in the hospital.

We’re also working to improve our relationship with the St. Louis County Fire Departments. We have a mutual aid agreement with them, and to support this agreement, we worked diligently to create standardized operating guidelines. So, if we have a fire near the St. Louis County line, we’ll often call on the County to help out. It’s a true partnership between departments.

Finally, we recently implemented a new radio system in all of the City’s fire trucks, and the County is beginning to do the same. We’ve worked together to create new guidelines on how to use the new radio system so we can communicate more effectively.

Q. In your six years as St. Louis City Fire Chief, what has been the greatest challenge(s) you’ve faced?

During my time as St. Louis City Fire Chief, the greatest challenge that I’ve faced was the downturn following the economy’s collapse in 2008, which occurred less than a year after I assumed my current position.

It’s very expensive to run a fire department of this size. Just like any other major business, we rely on a great deal of costly equipment. We work hard to maximize the life of our fire trucks and gear. However, when things need to be replaced, it can get rather expensive, prompting us to ask residents for more financial support. That’s never an easy request, especially when nearly everyone is feeling the effects of the economic recession.

Additionally, we’re required to provide a number of services beyond simply fighting fires.  First, many people don’t realize that the St. Louis City Fire Department also provides marine rescue on the river; collapse rescue; hazardous materials rescue; and high angle rescue.

Second, since our primary focus is fire prevention and education, our firefighters are out in the community on a daily basis, installing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and visiting schools and businesses to conduct educational seminars. All of these additional services can become quite costly for our department, which was made that much more challenging following the economic collapse.

Q. What has been your greatest success/accomplishment?

Despite the economic challenges we’ve faced, I’m proud to say that the St. Louis City Fire Department’s service never faltered. With the operational and technological improvements, I would say that City residents are getting even better service now.

I’m also proud of the fact that St. Louis City and County follow a cooperative strategy, sharing services and technologies. In fact, there is even more collaboration today between the City’s Fire Department and all of the other agencies in the area. St. Louis is definitely ahead of its time, because most cities do not have the level of first responder collaboration that we do.

Q. What are your goals for the next year and beyond?

First, we need to continue building a closer relationship with other area first responder agencies, so we can truly function as one unit when responding to emergency situations. If the St. Louis area were to ever experience a major catastrophic event, our ability to come together as one force – including fire, police and EMS – would be critical. We are basically the protecting army of the area. Therefore, our response to major events must be seamless.

Second, as St. Louis City Fire Chief, I believe my department owes it to the community to look for better ways to be more effective and efficient in the services that we provide. We should never be too comfortable or satisfied with our current approach. There is always room for improvement, so we should all strive to do better and be better.

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