Palm Coast Fire Chief Jerry Forte, a managerial guru to some, a mentor and father figure to many, and the self-effacing, sure-handed leader of the fire and other city departments over the past several years, announced today in an emotional address to the City Council that he would be retiring in October.
The announcement was not a surprise to most in the city: word of his retirement had been its own wildfire for the past several weeks, following his letter of intent to the city manager in January, though it seemed to come a bit sooner than imagined when he was elevated to fire chief less than four years ago, succeeding the always more boisterous Mike Beadle. Forte has been with the department 32 years, gradually building a reputation with few parallels in the county for administrative, leadership and ethical qualities.
This morning’s announcement was presented as if like an afterthought to the more pressing issue at the city: as “a little update on succession planning,” in City Manager Denise Bevan’s words.
“Every person at every level and every organization has the responsibility for succession planning and mentoring,” Forte began, before providing a brief lecture on managing successions. (Forte’s bedside reading is often books about management and mentoring.) He spoke of how 15 percent of the city’s workforce–65 employees–will be retiring in the next five years. “We’ve transformed our fire department from telling people what to do to having them tell us what has to get done,” he said. “As a leader we have the responsibility to train people and give them the skill set, build up their confidence so they can have the job that they love. When this is done and done correctly we raise all ships in our harbor.”
In effect, Forte was doing in his first public retirement speech what he’s tended to do throughout his career. He was relegating himself to a footnote, highlighting and commending the organization he’d built. He did not use the first person singular once for the first several minutes of his address except to speak of the qualities he’d witnessed in those around him. “Our organization is strong. Our leadership throughout is focused and I’m confident in the people that protect us day and night,” he said.
Only then the “I” began, and his voice shook: Forte’s emotions have always been controlled, but he’s never pretended to be a false stoic, either.
“I have given a lot of consideration to the role of my history in this amazing fire department,” he said. “It has been the greatest honor to serve this community for the last 32 years. And if given the chance to do it all over again I would have to be with every one of these amazing firefighters and remarkable team members in the city. And effective October 14, 2022. I will be retiring as the fire chief of the city of Palm Coast Fire Department.”
The last line caused him difficult. He paused briefly, swallowed. “This career did not happen alone. And there are so many people that I would like to thank for sharing this journey with me. And over the next seven months I will certainly try to acknowledge them all.” He said the department will move forward with transitioning toward a seamless change of leadership in October. He thanked Bevan, and got a standing ovation.
It was only natural that the most emotional member of the city council, and its only career first responder, took to the mic to address Forte: “You know emotions go through my heart, and I usually think a lot more with it than with my head,” Council member Eddie Branquinho said. “I’m not one of those guys that are at a loss of words. But you lead Well, I know for a fact, you lead well, and the person that’s going to replace you, I can almost guarantee anybody out there, that if he comes even close to you, which I think he will, will be leading well. You know my passion for the people in uniform because of what you do, of what you did, and of what you’re going to do out there. Words can’t describe what goes in my heart right now.” Then it was Branquinho’s turn to become emotional, reflecting on how Forte was among the first people who comforted Branquinho when Branquinho’s son died.
Council member Nick Klufas spoke of Forte’s “transcendence of knowledge and how you live as a person, and the most positive outlook because you’re the most prepared in your department,” with his department as family. “I’m thankful that I’ve had the experience of being able to watch as you teach those around you, and you have an incredible ability to make everyone around you better and want to be better. And I also thank you for the incredible leadership and dedication to our community that you’ve offered throughout your time here.”
Two leading candidates for the job are Battalion Chief Kyle Berryhill and Deputy Fire Chief Bradd Clark. Bevan will be appointing the next fire chief in coming weeks, with a formal transfer on Oct. 14.
Forte, according to a city release issued shortly after the announcement, joined the Palm Coast Fire Department in 1990 as a volunteer firefighter at the encouragement of his brother Joe, then a Holly Hill firefighter. He became a full time firefighter under the mentorship of Chief Norman Lewis. Throughout his career in the fire service, Forte accomplished many personal and professional achievements. In 1996, he earned his Fire Instructor Certification, in which he trained and mentored firefighters throughout the region for many years. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1997, Captain in 2000, Deputy Fire Chief in 2009 and Fire Chief in 2018.
In 2019, he spent eight months as the Interim Director of Public Works to fill a leadership role until the position was filled by Matthew Mancill. Most recently, Palm Coast City Council selected Chief Forte to serve as the Interim Assistant City Manager in which he worked closely with City Manager Denise Bevan. “Among the many accomplishments celebrated as part of Forte’s legacy, the greatest may be the succession planning and mentoring program which has prepared the Palm Coast Fire Department for the next generation of officers to come and is a proven method to hire lifelong employees that place an emphasis on character first,” Bevan said. “We all wish Chief Forte the best in his retirement and thank him for his years of dedicated service.”
Forte and his wife Lisa have four children and six grandchildren. The Forte Family have deep roots within the fire service. Aside from his brother who retired as Holly Hill’s fire chief, his daughter Jessica Matthews is a Daytona Beach Fire Department Battalion Chief, his son Anthony is a Lieutenant with the Flagler Beach Fire Department, and his nephew Jason is a Lieutenant with Flagler County Fire Rescue.