The Noblesville Fire Department in 1974, when now Fire Chief Ken Gilliam (front, right side kneeling) first joined as a fire fighter. Gilliam was one of 13 firemen then. The department now has 131 employees. Photo provided by the City of Noblesville
The Noblesville Fire Department in 1974, when now Fire Chief Ken Gilliam (front, right side kneeling) first joined as a fire fighter. Gilliam was one of 13 firemen then. The department now has 131 employees. Photo provided by the City of Noblesville
Noblesville Fire Chief Ken Gilliam has announced his plans to retire on May 22.

Gilliam began working for the Noblesville Fire Department in 1974 and has served two stints as fire chief, 1993-1995 and 2004-2015.

"Fire Chief Gilliam is a true Noblesville success story. We are honored not only by his years of service but how he impacted the city throughout his career. Chief Gilliam has diligently served the community with devotion, courage and integrity. He will be missed, but we wish him the best of luck as he enters the next stage of his life," Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear said. A public open house for Gilliam's retirement will be 2 to 4 p.m. May 22 at Noblesville Fire Station No. 71, 135 S. Ninth St., Noblesville.

Gilliam was born and raised in Noblesville. He is a 1970 graduate of Noblesville High School and graduated in 1974 from Wabash College in Crawfordsville with a degree in economics. Gilliam started working for Noblesville Fire on Feb. 16, 1974, during his final semester at Wabash.

"The opening was here and had to be filled," he said. "I got to know the fire fighters and it seemed like a pretty cool job. I was always active in sports in my younger days so it really appealed to me. Being a fireman is very similar to playing sports - you're always preparing for the big game and when it comes it's an adrenaline rush. Although, I wasn't absolutely certain it was what I wanted to do. When they talked to me about it I said, 'I'll give it a try and see if I like it.' And 41 years later I'm still here."

Commuting to and from Crawfordsville, Gilliam scheduled his classes for just a couple days each week and swapped his work schedule to free days.

"I missed one of my final exams because of a huge fire we had on the south end of town. I was really sweating that because they are really strict about finals over there," Gilliam recalled. "The fire actually occurred on my duty day but went through the night to the next day when I was supposed to be taking this exam. I went and told the professor and he said, 'I've never heard that excuse before, it's got to be true so I'll let you take it.'"

Recalling his early years, Gilliam said being a fire fighter and its demands were different than today.

"You were on call every day of your life. If you even went out of town on your day off, you had to call in and say 'I'll be out of town,' because since there were only 13 of us everybody had to show up to every fire. We didn't get overtime in those days, if you got called in it was just part of the deal. We didn't have quite as many runs compared to today, but every run you had you went on so we were actually quite busy," he said.

When Gilliam became fire chief in 1993, Noblesville had three fire stations. Because of a change in city leadership, Gilliam left Noblesville and served as fire chief in Sandusky, Ohio from December 1995 to February 2004.

Gilliam returned to Noblesville 30 years to the day in which he started on Feb. 16, 2004. During his almost 22 years as fire chief, Gilliam has overseen the construction of five fire stations - the last four built in Noblesville and one in Sandusky.

"That's been a really unique experience for me. It's probably where I feel the most fortunate - my career coincided with all the growth that occurred here. I've really been able to be a part of and watch the fire department grow from one station with 13 guys to seven stations with 131 people. Most people aren't fortunate enough to see that amount of change in their career so I consider that a tremendous opportunity I've been given," Gilliam said.

Gilliam said one prime example of how fire safety is conducted at a far higher level than when he joined is the use of air tanks.

"The philosophy was you weren't supposed to use them unless it was a last resort because it took too much time to get them on and there were only two of them anyway. So we just breathed smoke. You went in there and held your breath as long as you could and then you came out," he said. "It's a rule, now you have your breathing apparatus on anytime you are on the fire ground - in or out. We've come a long way on that issue."

Gilliam said the one thing he is most proud of since he became chief is the department's implementation of incident management or the structure with how fire fighters operate on scene, which was adopted before it became an industry standard.

"Back in my early days it was all freelancing. You jumped off the truck, grabbed a hose and went wherever you needed to go based on your own judgement," he said. "We are much more organized today. I haven't the slightest doubt that has helped keep people from being injured and/or killed and have served the customer far better."

During his 41-year career, Gilliam said there have been countless runs and large fires and good times and laughs while on the job. Gilliam said there also are incidents that are always on his mind that he tries to learn lessons from.

"The ones you are never able to emotionally distance yourself from are runs that involve children. There are a lot of those that I remember throughout my career and those are probably the toughest and the ones that you carry with you. I can still remember my first fatal fire, which sadly involved a 5- or 6-year-old little girl on Christmas morning. The mother got out but the daughter did not. That was still my rookie year. You learn to cope with them but you never forget about them," he said.

An avid trout fisherman, Gilliam and his wife, Wendy, plan to split time living in Indiana and the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas.

"It's been a wonderful experience that I would do over in a heartbeat. I really feel blessed to have a job and do something that made a difference for the community," Gilliam said.

Ditslear plans to announce the next fire chief in a week.

Want TO GO?

What: Noblesville Fire Chief Ken Gilliam's retirement open house.

When: 2 to 4 p.m. May 22.

Where: Noblesville Fire Station No. 71, 135 S. Ninth St., Noblesville (the Noblesville Public Safety building).