PITTSBURG, Kan. — Growing up on Long Island, Pittsburg’s new Fire Chief, Dennis Reilly, would admire the firetrucks as they’d fly past his house. Sirens blaring rushing towards whatever emergency needed it. He wanted to be one of them.
He dreamed of becoming a firefighter, of helping people and making a difference, and that’s just what he did.
“Every young child sees a fire truck going down the street and thinks ‘that’s pretty cool, that’s what I want to do’ and I guess I just never got over that,” he said. “I guess I never grew up.”
Reilly has been fighting fires since he was 16 and he’s gone on to be a firefighter and even a fire chief at many fire departments around the country, and now, he’s landed in Pittsburg.
“I’m very happy to be here,” he said.
The 44-year firefighter comes to Pittsburg from Davis, California, where he served as the assistant fire chief. Reilly said he and his wife initially moved out there to be close to their daughter and grandson, but it never felt like home.
“California is a difficult place to fit into if you have a strong Philadelphia accent,” he said. “I wasn’t really satisfied professionally in California. It just wasn’t a good fit.”
Rielly has lived all around the country but said that Pittsburg is by far the friendliest and most welcoming place he has served and lived.
“My wife and I have just been floored by the welcome that we have gotten,” he said. “People just have bent over backwards to make us feel welcomed and appreciated.”
Rielly also stresses that this is where he plans to stay until he retires.
“This is it; I’m not moving anywhere else. This is not a steppingstone. This is where I plan on being for the rest of my career,” he said. “I mean unless Key West or Honolulu calls and asks be to me their chief of operations, then we might have to talk.”
Reilly began his lifelong career in firefighting as a junior fireman on Long Island. He then joined the army and served as an army medic with the 82nd Airborne Division and was deployed during the first Gulf War. He would go on to work for Blackwater Security as a medic and spent about three years overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan helping protect ambassadors and foreign dignitaries that came to the country.
“A lot of people talk about Blackwater, but they weren’t there. They don’t know what we had to encounter,” he said. “I’m very proud of that work.”
After and in between his work with the military, Reilly has served as assistant fire chief for the City of Davis, California, Fire Chief for Sunrise Beach, Missouri, Assistant Fire Chief in Linville, North Carolina, and battalion chief for Cherry Hill Township, New Jersey.
In Cherry Hill, Reilly was also a member of the New Jersey State Urban Search & Rescue Task Force and was deployed to perform search and rescue at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
“I was in Manhattan within three hours of the building collapse,” he said. “We unfortunately weren’t able to make any rescues, but I think at that point in time the country needed to people do to some very difficult things. I had the privilege of being put in that situation to do the nation’s work.”
Reilly said being a firefighter is one of the most rewarding jobs in the world and he feels lucky to be able to do it.
“It’s the best job in the world,” he said. “It’s a privilege if you get to do the job.”
Reilly began his stint as Pittsburg Fire Chief on Monday, Oct. 26, and he’s already been really impressed with how well the department runs.
“If you’ve been in the business as long as I have, you can walk in a place and really quickly get a feel for the nature of the organization and this place just screams of pride, commitment to the job, commitment to community,” Reilly said. “I’ve gone into organizations before that needed a lot of work. I don’t see that here. These folks, they’re ready.”
Reilly said he admires the work of the former Fire Chief Mike Simons, and all he did to help for the department. Reilly said he hopes to focus on the future and how the department can grow and improve to better protect the community.
“Communities always change, risk always changes, hazards always change,” he said. “I think we really do a huge disservice to the community if we’re not up there on our toes looking into the future and making sure day in and day out, we’re ready for what could possibly happen.”
While Pittsburg only sees about 20 working fires a year, Reilly said his focus is on making sure his firefighters are as prepared as possible for whatever emergency arises.
“Any organization is going to have a weakness somewhere, so, my goal is to figure out what those are and how can we strengthen those weaknesses,” he said. “I’ve always said, particularly in this day in age, if you’re standing still, you’re actually moving backwards.”
However, he emphasized that above all he wants to create an environment where the firefighters are excited to come to work.
“Happy people do a better job,” he said. “On their last day, I want them to be able to look at their career with the same joy and enthusiasm that they had when they got the call that they were going to be a firefighter.”