“Chief 21 Flagler.”
It was Palm Coast Fire Chief Jerry Forte’s last call-out to the 911 dispatch center, at 15:05 today.
The dispatcher answered.
“Be advised,” Forte responded, “Chief Forte will be placing himself in quarters for the last time.”
City Clerk Virginia Smith had just sworn in Kyle Berryhill. He was now Palm Coast’s 18th fire chief. The dispatcher called out his new call sign–Chief 21–and the 200-odd people gathered at the Palm Coast Community Center gave him rousing cheers.
It was continuity and change today as Berryhill took over as chief, after Forte’s five-year tenure. Continuity, because both men are cut of the same cloth–unassuming, humble, impossibly emotional at times, but also unequivocally commanding. And change, because Berryhill, at 42, represents a generational change for a rapidly evolving department.
“After 32 years of service, it’s now time for a new generation of leaders to create a next era of public safety with talented people ready to move forward,” Forte had said.
“You don’t lose a Chief Forte and don’t notice, right?” Berryhill said later, prefacing the challenges ahead and pledging to “do my best every time.” He had struggled, much like Forte in his speeches on high occasions, to make it through more than a few sentences without tears.
“My Dad was really great at making sure I knew how special he thought I was, but situations like this left him a little tongue-tied,” Berryhill said of his late father as he concluded his remarks. “He would start to say that he was proud of me and then take it back, ‘I’m always proud of you, but this is extra cool.’ In many ways that is how I feel about the privilege of being named chief of the Palm Coast Fire Department. I don’t know how to express how proud and honored I feel today but I have been so proud to be associated with these men and women every day for the last 17 years. Together we have a collective challenge. Our shared values brought us to where we are today and they will continue to light the path for where we go from here.”
The ceremony, organized by the department’s Lt. Patrick Juliano, combined honoring Forte’s legacy with an eye on Berryhill’s future.
Forte at times spoke as if at a commencement ceremony for a single person: Berryhill.
He cautioned his successor that he will lose sleep, that his ranks will run into buildings others are running out of, and that on simultaneous days they’ll celebrate life and endure horrors. “Surround yourself with the best people of character you can find and never give up on that high ground. Allow them to be creative and empower them to never fail,” he told Berryhill, before turning to his own family, and the memory of his father. He thanked his parents for making him. “This is an awesome life,” he said.
Vice Mayor Eddie Branquinho in the preamble to his speech–speaking off script–credited Forte not just for Berryhill’s ascension, but for his existence as chief: “Thank you for creating him,” Branquinho said, words both Forte and certainly Berryhill might temper: Berryhill, like Forte, has always given family and the ranks of his own department for making their leadership possible. Even Branquinho acknowledged that; “You don’t run this department like a family business. You run it like a family,” he said. But certain people undoubtedly play outsized roles.
In a reflection of the importance he gives family, Berryhill devoted a third of his speech to members of his family, recognizing them by name and telling what each means, to him. Many were in the audience, some not. The occasion drew in an aunt and uncle from Tennessee, his mother’s sister and her husband, whom he describes as “very special in my life,” his late dad’s brother, and of course his mother, his wife, his in-laws, and his two children. He then segued into the meaning of loyalty, family and integrity as the guiding principles of his leadership style.
“I was pretty proud to get this job a long time ago,” Berryhill said in an interview today.”Jerry Forte actually called and offered me the job. I was having dinner with my dad. I’ve felt that kind of pride when I was a freshman in high school, I made the JV baseball team. I wore that jersey everywhere, because that’s the kind of proud that I was in. That’s how I felt about this. So I’m exceptionally proud. The honor is made for me because of the men and women that I’ve had the privilege to serve with, and that I’ll continue to be there for, those people make it really special for me.”
He describes the “ton of wisdom” he’s received from Forte, and “the example of service. There’s never a job that’s too little for Jerry Forte.” The lesson from Forte, Berryhill said, was “everyday humility, the way that he treats people every day.” In recent months and weeks Berryhill has seen a more contemplative Forte, a man taking in the reality of leaving a job and a department he’s been in for 33 years. “I don’t want to say grieving but you know, processing,” Berryhill said of the former chief. “But there’s also been a ton of joy.”
It was never Fortress Forte at the Palm Coast Fire Department, but rather a family atmosphere where the chief thrived on projecting a degree of paternalism to his ranks, wrapped in humor and a love of life.
But Forte, Berryhill said, has had no regrets. “I think that he feels like his family is ready for this. And I think he feels like our department is ready.”
In his speech at today’s ceremony, Forte conceded that “there have been humbling and an emotionally difficult time letting go, and an inundation of memory.” He quoted from a favorite line from scriptures’ Isaiah that had shadowed his career’s purpose (“Here I am, send me”) and applied it to his colleagues. “It was the message in action and belief,” he said. “watching them live this philosophy has been my reward.” But despite his apprehension, he said Berryhill had navigated both budget season and a hurricane to show he had “successfully completed the intern program.”
Budgeting may look like a big deal, and in its own place, it is: budgets are a necessary function of the fire department, as they are to the function of any government department. Contending with city officials may seem like a big deal. Ceremonies certainly give the impression of being a big deal. “But it’s not a big deal in comparison to the things that we’re doing on a day to day basis, where we’re talking about life and death things, which are about people’s lives, right?” Berryhill says.
He expects that the job will be somewhat more political than it’s been in his previous roles. He’s not worried. Berryhill’s diplomacy and genial demeanor are a buffer. So is the city manager, Denise Bevan. “We definitely interact with elected officials but we get direction from the city manager. So that that provides a layer of insulation,” he said. “My job is definitely more political than being the battalion chief, so I’ve gotten to see both sides of it.”
The ceremony also included a few promotions. Thomas Ascone, Dave Faust, Jennifer Fiveash, Randy Holmes, Jon Kozolski, James Neuenfeldt and Andrew Woolwine were promoted to battalion chief. Joseph Fajardo and Junelle Steward were promoted to lieutenant. Brandon Davis, Daniel Kerr, Sean McBride and Christopher Strozier were promoted to driver engineer. And Bailey Sattar, Tyler Major, Anthony Forte and Mitchell White are now probationary firefighters.
And it included guests who reflected Berryhill’s (and Forte’s) collegial approach across municipal and county lines: Flagler Beach Fire Chief Bobby Pace and Stephen Cox, Flagler County Fire Rescue Chief Mike Tucker and Deputy Chief Percy Sayles, and retired Palm Coast Fire Chief Mike Beadle.
“When I met the fire chief, Mike Beadle,” Berryhill had said of his earliest days on the job, “he asked if I wanted to be the Chief some day and I said that I didn’t know, I was just getting started. Later I made a point to tell him that I never wanted to be the chief because being a firefighter was great and being the chief didn’t look like nearly as much fun.” The years ahead will let him decide if that judgment was right, or if it’ll prove to be one of his few erroneous ones.