Update: In the wake of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s annual honor to America’s fallen firefighters on Sunday, the Flagler County Commission on Monday (Oct. 5) agreed to direct the county administration to look into why John Kepler Jr.’s death as a firefighter with Flagler County Fire Rescue has still not been recognized as a line-of-duty death. The article below, the first to shed light on Kepler’s case, was originally published on March 16, 2015. The county has done nothing to honor him since.
Cpt. John Keppler Jr. had been a volunteer firefighter in Flagler County since retiring here from Pennsylvania in 1993, though at age 54 he’d been fighting fires for 40 years, starting in New Jersey when he was 14.
On March 21, 2002, he collapsed and died of a heart attack within five hours of responding to an emergency call in the Mondex.
On Tuesday in Tallahassee, when Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater unveils Florida’s Fallen Firefighters Memorial on the grounds of the State Capitol, Keppler’s will be among the nearly 200 names chiseled on a memorial dedicated to firefighters who have died in the line of duty. Atwater invited Keppler’s two sons, Andrew and John, both of whom are lieutenant firefighter-paramedics with Flagler County Fire Rescue, to speak at the unveiling. And that’s where they’ll be Tuesday, along with their mother, Kathleen Morey, to honor the memory of a man Andrew, echoing his brother’s words, calls “my father, my officer, my brother and my best friend.”
It is the third time the late Keppler’s name will be inscribed on a fallen firefighters’ memorial. His name also appears on the Florida Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Ocala, alongside the names of 174 men and women, the first one recorded in 1888. And Keppler’s name appears on the national firefighters’ memorial in Emmitsburg, Md., where he was added only a few years ago.
The only place where Keppler does not have his name recognized is in his home county, and the county where he gave his life: Keppler is Flagler County’s only firefighter to have died in the line of duty. Not only is there no memorial to his name. The county doesn’t even recognize Keppler’s death as being a line-of-duty death.
“We do empathize with the loss of her husband,” Sally Sherman, the county’s deputy administrator, said last week, referring to Keppler’s widow, who lives in Flagler Beach and has remarried. “We feel privileged that both of her sons are full time firefighter-paramedics lieutenants with Flagler County Fire Rescue, carrying on their father’s legacy. We don’t deny that Mr. Keppler was a volunteer firefighter.” Sherman knows his history and time of service from 1993 to 2002. “He was an active volunteer firefighter. But here comes the situation,” she says.
“What we can’t do sir, is to say that his death was considered a line of duty death,” Sherman said—a determination that would also entail the payment of benefits accordingly.
Sherman and Joe Mayer, the county’s human resources director, cite the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act of 1976, which extends benefits to survivors of public safety officers, including firefighters, who die either directly in the line of duty or as “proximate result” of stress or injury resulting from line-of-duty work. In 2003, President Bush extended benefit to include heart attacks precisely like those Keppler suffered. But the law was not made retroactive.
“As a parent of a firefighter paramedic I empathize with their loss and it pains me to know that they lost their father in that way and she lost her husband,” Sherman said, “but again, based on the information that we have, it doesn’t qualify, she doesn’t qualify for survivors’ benefits.”
“If he died after December 15, 2003, it would not be an issue,” Mayer said.
Keppler had worked a fire call that Wednesday. Thursday, he was supposed to be off. It was March 21, 2002, the first day of spring. He went on a medical call anyway. It was about noon, an attempted suicide on Mango Street in Daytona North, also known as the Mondex. He and fellow-firefighter Tinka Bishop-Brannon responded at the St. Johns Park fire station and went to the call on Engine 71. “The call went without incident,” Bishop-Brannon recalled almost 10 years later. “As John and I came back to the station from Mango Street, he began complaining of heartburn.” He then went home. When his wife got home from work at 4:30 p.m., he told her he wasn’t feeling well. She took him to the old Memorial hospital in Flagler.
He was five feet from the Emergency Room entrance when he collapsed. Medical staff’s attempts to revive him were in vain. He was pronounced dead at 5:30 p.m. He was a fourth-generation firefighter in a family to whom fighting fires was expected, to whom fighting fires was second nature. He had spent the last 11 years of his life fighting fires alongside his two sons, neither of whom knew that he’d been working the day he died. It was only years later, going through records at the St. Johns station, that they came across documents showing that, in fact, he had been on a call hours before his death, documents corroborated by two firefighters who’d worked with him that day—Bisho-Brannon and Yann Roberto Vidal. Vidal didn’t remember the actual call, but, in a 2011 memo, he wrote that he’d signed the medical-call paperwork pertaining to the March 21, 2002 call, documentation that showed Keppler’s involvement in the call.
Initially, as far as the Keppler family was concerned, the county had sought to distance itself from Keppler as a volunteer firefighter, saying records were not showing that he was an actual volunteer. But the records the two brothers eventually produced made it difficult for the county to deny that John Keppler Jr. had been, in fact, a volunteer firefighter all those years. But still, while Sherman says the county would be honored to provide a certificate of service or something along those lines, the death can still not be recognized as a line-of-duty death—even if the nation and the state recognize it as such.
Keppler’s sons, John and Andrew, speak proudly of their father and of Tuesday’s event in Tallahassee. They’re reluctant to speak about the county’s refusal to acknowledge what is being so ceremoniously recognized by the state or the country, largely because they don’t want to jeopardize their work as firefighters for the county. But as they speak about their father, they’re unable not to address the matter, and this in particular: it’s not the benefits they’re after. It’s simply the recognition that he died in the line of duty.
“My mom is not asking for much,” Andrew says. “All he’s asking for is for my father to be recognized for what he was.”
“It’s definitely—it’s upsetting,” John says. “Mostly, the most upsetting about it is the fact that I work for the county,” he says, “I’m a fireman for the county, a lieutenant for the county, I love this county, I’ve dedicated my life to protect the citizens of this county, I just like to see credit given where credit is due. I’m not mad. It’s sad, it’s unfortunate. But there’s only so much you can say because of the fact that I do work for the county.”
In 1993 in Pennsylvania, John and his father were trapped in a house on fire. The fire had appeared to have been put out, at least on the first and second floors. It was still burning in the basement. It traveled from basement to attic through the walls. Both men escaped death when the older Keppler smashed out a gable and caught the attention of a photographer shooting the scene below, enabling firefighters to bring a ladder and get both men out. “He was a good fireman, one of the best firemen I’ve ever seen,” John says, recalling that day. “He had what’s missing in a lot of firemen nowadays and for quite some time: he had a lot of experience, he saw a lot of fire.”
Andrew and John got the invitation to the Tallahassee unveiling from Atwater almost three weeks ago, but it wasn’t until last week that they were told that they’d be speaking at the event. Writing the speech has been a work in progress, Andrew said, describing—as would his brother—his father as a larger-than-life man in every sense: size, heart, achievements, and especially, generosity. A recurring memory for both boys as they were growing up was the number of times their father would be ambushed by the gratefulness of strangers who’d been helped or touched by his work one way or another. In one case, he’d helped a woman through a difficult labor emergency. It was right around the time when “E.T.,” the movie, came out, in 1982. The woman’s husband carved him a bust of E.T., which is now with Keppler’s only daughter, Monica.
As a young boy John witnessed his father administer CPR to someone as an emergency developed suddenly when the family was at a train station in New Jersey. “I was probably six years old maybe, seven years old,” John says. “To watch your dad do that at such a young age, it makes an impression on you, which is probably why my brother and I do what we do now. There was no doubt what I was going to when I grew up. I was going to be just like my dad.”
“My father dedicated his life to his fellow man. He just enjoyed helping people,” Andrew says. “It’s nice having some place to go and see his name, with him being recognized for the sacrifice he made to the citizens of Flagler County, something we don’t have here locally.”
Retired FF says
I knew John for many years and know both his sons. It is truly unfortunate that Flagler County will not at least recognize the work and sacrifice John made. He would be very proud of the fine young men and dedicated career professionals his sons have become.
Verna Orhun says
I too new and worked with John and later his sons and can personally attest to all of their on going dedication to the communities they have served. It is a disgrace to this County that they have not recognized John’s service.
THE VOICE OF REASON says
Sounds like a wonderful man and a stellar firefighter.
But if the desk sergeant at the Sheriff’s office worked a shift, went home and had a heart attack after arriving at home, I doubt it would be considered “line of duty.”
Flagler Pioneer says
He was on a call hours before. That is different than a desk Sergeant! If the Sargeant had been on a call a few hours before, it would be in the line of duty as well!
THE VOICE OF REASON says
Don’t think so. Line of duty means while performing your duty or later as a result of an injury received while performing your duty.
So your saying that injuries to the cardio-vascular system while performing strenuous exertion in the line of duty and later succombing to those injuries is not considered a LODD? What is the difference between falling from a ladder, smoke inhalation, burns, vehicle accidents, collapse or multi system trauma and dying from a heart attack or stroke after a fire? If you don’t know what your talking about, shut your mouth. (Batt. Chief and fireman X 34years)
C’mon man says
You are actually wrong. Sgt Celico went home sick and passed away several hours later. Line of duty death. Check your facts next time.
Cyd Weeks says
I’m not understanding.. If they are not required to extend benefits to someone who died prior to a certain date, that does not mean they can’t recognize him and honor him as someone who died in the line of duty. Something doesn’t make any sense.
Tommy Shelby says
If I am reading this correctly…. Flagler County rather than honoring a fallen firefighter, which the state and US already have they go straight to not qualifying for benifits to his family? These men are firemen! I doubt they are looking for compensation to their fathers clearly line of duty death. But again herr the county goes with its backward antics and rules. A simple remembrance to honor the sacrifice he gave to this county should be done. What will it take for the county to wake up? What if it was your father mother, brother? How would you feel?
Give the man the recognition that he deserves! County base its denial in an unjustifiable technicality?
Lets give credit when credit is do and honor Capt. John Kepler as he deserves.
Same with our passed former Palm Coast city councilman Jerry Full, If was not for his relentless fight to preserve for us all Palmcoasters the intracoastal front walkway and linear park walkway along the St Joe Canal we would not have our beautiful hammock to walk today. There he was handing out pamphlets in the heat of these summers alerting us of the possibility of the new landowners to encroach our walkway, privatize it and close our public access walkway, when actually we had the grandfathering right over the use for many years. He spent hours in city and county meetings always promoting and supporting our rights to maintain our intracoastal front access for the residents and visitors of Palm Coast. Unfortunately he passed away in NY near his children the last months of his life, without receiving the deserved appreciation for his land saving labor. What about naming the Linear Park “Councilman Jerry Full Park or just Jerry Full Park? We have a Canfield (ex Mayor) golf course restaurant don’t we?
If after this article nothing is done to rectify this appalling miscarriage of human decency, we should all just hang our heads in total shame.
There is a spot, even in the agencies that we allow to govern us, where tiny nuances can be used to proclaim that WE WILL OVERLOOK this tiny detail.
God bless this man, John Keppler Jr !
And as for his sons, who only want their father’s name to be remembered for what and who he was as a person, my hugs.
Palm Coast Citizen says
It appears nothing has been done. It’s been five years
Flagler county should hang their heads in shame and embarrasement. The state and other cities recognize him with honors, etc and his “own people” don’t because they don’t want to have to pay his survivor some monetary benefits? How proud we should be of the county to make that kind of decision. NOT
David S. says
This is totally upsetting to me , as a former ff in maryland it doesnt matter if your a vol ff or paid the brothers and sisters risk their life to protect the citizens nationwide everyday in this country and should be recognized for his service.
Wow more of the politically correct B*S* that is drowning us.
Whatever happened to doing what’s right? Oh that’s right, that ship set sail with spanking kids and in GOD we trust. Amen
Debra N says
Horrible……Yes Flagler County should hang their heads in shame that this was even issue then and has not been recitified NOW. If anyone of the powers that be were to have their houses on fire or family members in jeopardy the first thing they would do would be to call on our Firefighters and Police Officers to rescue them. These are the people who run into the danger and risk their lives for us. THIS DISGRACE CAN BE FIXED….but will they do it?
Charlie D says
Once again our county leaders do the dance around the question because it might cost them money. If one of them stubbed a toe there would be money, plaques and whatever else they could think of. I’ve lived here almost 25 years and becoming more ashamed of this county as time goes on.
The misunderstanding comes into play with the Firefighter Heart and Lung bill and the presumption of illnesses. If the employee becomes symptomatic and suffers a heart attack or worse, death, due to coronary heart disease, FL Law actually presumes it to be “in the line of duty.” This law would too apply to law enforcement desk sergent if they were symptomatic while on duty or with in up to 24 hours (a standard that has been recognized).
This is as equivocally a line of duty death as they get. The right thing to do is to make this right, and not dance around the particulars or the facts. It saddens me that people will look for a quicker out to NOT pay a benefit this man EARNED and his family is entitled to! I can’t fathom, not for a simple second, why someone (county administrator), or a group of people (county commissioners) wouldn’t make every attempt to make this right! I wouldn’t accept that silly notion given above. There is only ONE of these cases that Flagler County has to make right. There is not 200. He gave his life, and now the proper thing to do is to honor him!
This is very similar to a soldier going to war, and coming back with a life altering combat injury, and then getting the cold shoulder while attempting to get benefits paid out to him/her that were earned when the injury occurred protecting our enjoyed freedoms. Is this what we as citizens of America would be proud of if this was done to one of our loved ones had this happened to them? Put yourself into these shoes and think about this. Then apply common sense to this and make it right!
I am not sure how much money would be tied up to pay this benefit out, but I wouldn’t blink an eye or give a second thought to think paying out this benefit would be the “wrong” thing to do. Make this right by putting together an ordinance and voting it through a commission meeting. If the county commissioners would be worried about the “public perception” than put it on a ballot and allow the citizen’s of Flagler Co. to make this right, on the ballot. I am sure more money (our tax dollars) has been used for much worse things than someone who has lost their life saving and protecting our life (legal fees representing a rouge supervisor of elections comes to my mind).
The silver lining in this story is hopefully to come from this story, which is Flagler County stands up and recognizes a line of duty death for a firefighter who lost his life and makes things right by paying out benefits for its only Line of Duty death to date.
To the sons: Thankyou for your dedication and hard work protecting my family here in Flagler County. I am very grateful to know you both are protecting the community your father selflessly gave his life to protect! Thank you both.
Shameful. Do what is right and honorable. He certainly did.
David S. says
Maybe there is something that we as citizens of this county can do to change their mind.The more that I read the comments from everyone this needs to be someone with a higher authority to do whats right for their families.Someone from the county needs to erect a memorial in his name with all the information about the incident which would include benefits for their families.This another black eye for this government.
I am glad to retired from service after 25 years, it will be harder and harder to bring people into the line of duty of either Police or Firefighter. Police have taken a terrible rap over the past year, see what happens if the police or fire departments go on strike. They are underpaid here terribly for the work that needs to be done, granted this is not a large city but any call can be your last.
A good lesson to be learned here…
Don’t risk your life for Flagler County.
Cyd Weeks says
Again, according to what is written here…. it would not cost them a dime. And I’m not saying that benefits shouldn’t be given but they do not HAVE to be. So since they wouldn’t have to be what is the objection to recognizing this man? What is the objection to having someone go to represent Flagler at the ceremony? That’s what is not making any sense to me. It costs nothing but a tank of gas.
Willy Laundrie says
I hope this story with the help of this article has a good outcome for the Keppler family. Simple acknowledgment is all that is needed here, and a certificate would hang on the wall for only the family to see. Making a statement like naming Flagler County’s fire training facility after John Keppler Jr. would be a more fitting public acknowledgment.
PC Resident says
His surviving sons and their mother went to the ceremony today to represent and honor their father.
Brad W says
‘“If he died after December 15, 2003, it would not be an issue,” Mayer said’
John Mayer should be fired for making such a heartless and callous statement like that. This whole situation is shameful for Flagler County. You have an administration trying to save a few bucks over someone’s life that helped others while you have hundreds of thousands of dollars being wasted every year on people’s political agendas that benefit no one (i.e. the EDC, the hospital purchase, the court house fiasco, etc.).
Give the man’s family the benefits they deserve.
If I understand the County’s position correctly……if they take any kind of action to acknowledge he died in the line of duty, that it would open up the potential for the County to pay benefits.
If the State is already recognizing the fact that he did die in the line of duty by honoring him on a memorial, should that not trump the County’s determination?
Politics aside, even with pressure from us citizens, I don’t think the County will change their position.
That being said……what is stopping us Citizen to organize and build a Memorial in Honor of a fallen Hero?
Yes, it would be hard work and have to scarify some time, a small price to pay to Honor a Hero who paid the ultimate price.
He will be honored in Flagler, he will have a memorial in his honor, may take some time.
It is time for us Citizen to step up and do what’s right with or without the support of the County.
Let’s roll up our sleeves and get this going…….I’m willing to step up…..who’s with me……
Lisa B says
If the county won’t do what is right, then maybe the citizens of Flagler County could! Set up a GO FUND ME (www.gofundme.com) account online to raise the support for the memorial and do it without the jack wagons from the county.
in laws says
Start a go fund me and I’ll give to the fund
Rich Santomassino says
Flagler county government really has no moral compass. It is reprehensible that the powers that be cannot find it in their hearts (and budget) to create a small memorial to honor this great man. He was a VOLUNTEER. He was helping out the citizens of Flagler out of the goodness of his heart and this is the thanks he was given? Shame on you Flagler county and anyone who has been involved in denying this to this family!
Trailer Bob says
I agree, if someone starts a go fund me page, then lets the rest of us know how to fund it, I am in also.
Someone here must be a “Go Fund Me” genius…step up and let us know by way of this paper.
Take a good look says
Unreal! This county’s response to this situation is no less than absolutely DISGUSTING! Recognize this man for the ultimate sacrifice he has made in the line of duty already! Flagler County powers that be just bringing about more shame to yourselves!
This is so sad. If an officer was shot in the line of duty and died 3 months later it would be considered dying from injuries in the line of duty. Stress causes heart attacks and I as a nurse know , your under a lot of stress and do take your work home. It’s hard not too. My heart goes out the the family. Shame on Flagler County
Ridiculous! The family deserves compensation and this man’s sacrifice deserves to be accorded due honors.
Concerned Citizen says
As a retired Lieutenant from another fire Rescue agency.
I would like to directly ask our BOCC why they are refusing to honor this man. After a life long service to this county.
Are the politics so bad that you refuse to honor someone even after the State and Feds have done so? If that’s the case then it’s truly sad and embarrising as well. Why not stop your fighting and name calling. And do the right thing and honor this individual. Refusing to do so makes you look like the asses you continue to be.
Jane Gentile-Youd says
Disgraceful and proof of total contempt Flagler County officials have for everyone other than themselves. There is no greater, more caring employees than our fire rescue and emergency responders. These selfish greedy bastards should take $100,000 from the useless county attorney’s budget and gift his children and wife with the honor they deserve and rename a major road after this wonderful compassionate and dedicated human being, Shame on the bunch of you all.
For the those who feel Mr. Keppler doesn’t qualify please look up the Congressional Hometown Heroes Act. He automatically qualifies under this clause.
What a disgrace!!! Typical Flagler County Politics. If it doesn’t benefit them it doesn’t get done!!
Sally Sherman made certain she got paid, though.
C’mon man says
I never knew anything about this until this article so thanks to FlaglerLive for bringing it to light. Commenting won’t get anything done. Let’s all write to our state representatives and/or governor and perhaps they can help if they really care.
Concerned Citizen says
By all means please join our ranks to make change in this county.
Myself and several other readers have long since been doing more “than just commenting”. I have sent countless emails to our “esteemed” local,state and federal officials. I have not voted any incumbents this election. And I continue to make phone calls to various agencies to get investigations started. And as I stated before my next step is to load them up with ethics complaints.
A few of us cannot do it all though. Get those emails going, file those complaints and vote responsibly. It takes an enite community to foster change.
And this county needs change badly and fast.
Concerned Citizen says
As A retired Lieutenant from another Fire Rescue agency.
I once again directly and openly challenge this corrupt and inept BOCC.
I’ll even direct it towards Commisioner Erikesen. Why are you refusing to honor this fallen FF? And why did you let your disrespectful ass of a human resources manager (John Mayer) make such a disparaging remark towards the family and this community? I am hoping you will ask for a public apology from Mayer for that. And learn some damned tact.
It does not take much to honor Captain Keppler. Just do the right thing. I spent over 20 years as a FF and thankfully made it out OK. We train our whole lives in a line of work that might requre that one ultimate sacrifice that means we don’t go home that shift.
The more I see this article the madder I get. Of all the penny anny bullshit in this county. This commision takes bribes all day long and laughs at us. They let an ass of a commisioner threaten their own members and apparently run around drugged up. And then become so afraid of him or bought by him they are scared to censure.
I am glad Flagler Live ran this article. It brings more light on an already useless BOCC. I only hope FL keeps up the pressure. Maybe we can keep up the demand that this BOCC stops with whatever grudge they have and DO THE RIGHT THING!!
It’s most likely because Flagler County politicians are too busy doing shady “behind the scene” deals for their own personal gain. Therefore, those who should be recognized for their own sacrifices are left out to dry. Flagler County Government needs to be purged!!! Wake up people!!!
FLAGLER COUNTY SUCKS says
This just shows and proves the Flagler County Way! Its all about the almighty dollar and not about the people. The local government officials dont care about anyone except themselves and their families. Its all who ya know and who ya blow in Flagler County! If any of the local politicians/elected officials dont bother to rectify this any work they have done should also go unrecognized and their names spat on. They dont risk anything yet expect praise and reward for doing bare minimum. Flagler County is an embarrassment on every level. Maybe the residents should plan an event and honor Mr. Keppler and his family in the meantime, dont need to wait on the worthless government to do so. Thank you to Mr. Keppler and his family for your sacrifices for the community.