An 18-year effort to get Flagler County to recognize former county firefighter John R. Keppler’s line-of-duty death in 2002 finally ended Monday evening with the county commission’s decision to rename the fire rescue training facility on Justice Lane after Keppler.
Until then, Keppler had been honored on two state memorials, including the the Florida Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Ocala, the Florida’s Fallen Firefighters Memorial on the grounds of the state Capitol, and the national firefighters’ memorial in Emmitsburg, Md., but Flagler recognize what had been–and remains–the county’s only line-of-duty death. But Flagler has never recognized it as such.
On March 21, 2002, Keppler responded to an attempted suicide call in the Mondex, started feeling chest pains, asked his wife to drive him to the hospital, and died within sight of the emergency room door. Barely a year later the Florida Legislature passed a bill that recognized deaths like Keppler’s as line-of-duty deaths. But since he died before the law’s enactment, the county has maintained that he was not eligible for benefits.
The county still maintains that disqualification, but now joins state and federal memorials to recognize Keppler’s honorable place among the line-of-duty fallen. Heidi Petito, the county’s interim deputy administrator, and Joe King, the interim fire chief, met with the Keppler family–both John’s sons are with Flagler County Fire Rescue–and found the naming of the training facility after him to be a worthy honor “as he was passionate about training,” Petito said.
Signage bearing Keppler’s name would go up at the driveway entrance to the facility, on the isolated Justice Lane at Bunnell’s outskirts–the road leads to the county jail and the former sheriff’s administration building–and on the training fire tower itself.
“It has been a long road,” Monica Keppler, Keppler’s eldest child and only daughter, told commissioners as she spoke through a black mask, wearing a commemorative ribbon on her shirt. Her voice broke as she went on. “He was 54 when he died. I’m lucky that I got to have him for almost 32 years. On behalf of my family, my mom, my brothers, the rest of our family and our friends who came to share this with us, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.” The captain was married to Kathleen Keppler-Morey.
Patrick Delsordo, a firefighter alongside Keppler in St. Johns Park, and with Keppler’s sons Andrew and John, spoke of a picture of the trio with Delsordo at the oldest wooden building left in Flagler, the Bridge Tender Inn, “as it was on fire.” He showed the picture to the commission and presented it to Keppler’s sons. ‘This photo has been hanging on my wall with all my certificates from the 80s and 90s, of being a firefighter since 1982 here in Flagler County, and it’s been a pleasure to fight fires with these gentlemen. And this is a great honor for this man.”
“Thank you to the family and everyone for bringing this out so we can get it done,” Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien said. We’re proud to dop that, and so proud that we have folks like that that serve in our community, and have for a long time, the family.” Commissioners then stood in applause for the family in the chamber.
Petito wasn’t speaking idly when she said that Keppler was passionate about training. That may have even been an understatement.
Keppler, who’d retired to Flagler in 1993 after a career in firefighting in Pennsylvania and was a volunteer Captain locally, had been quite outspoken about training–directly to commissioners, and not to flatter them. After the 1998 fires, he was among the many residents who descended on a County Commission meeting to criticize the response to that year’s wildfires in June and July, which destroyed or damaged 51 homes, especially in Seminole Woods, burned 75,000 acres and triggered a full evacuation order. Keppler criticized the county’s firefighting equipment and its old fire trucks.
Weeks later, after the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association issued a scathing report that found the county’s firefighting operation to be outdated, plagued by poor communications and poor leadership, Keppler was blunt: “Lack of communication and control. Gross stupidity. Insufficient training,” he told the News-Journal at the time. “The radios don’t work out here. This type of communication system for this large of an area went out with propeller aircraft.”
The fires spurred a vast modernization of the department.