After 38 years, Fire Chief Gary Bird will hang up the badge

Adam Troxtell / The Transcript

Moore Fire Chief Gary Bird has announced he will retire effective May 30 of this year. It brings to an end seven years as the chief, 34 years with the Moore Fire Department and 38 years as a firefighter.

Before he came to Moore, before watching the fire department and the city grow from a small town to a vibrant suburb, and before being part of Oklahoma's most needed disaster relief effort, Fire Chief Gary Bird lived in sleepy Ninnekah.

Back then, it was called East Ninnekah, right in the middle of rural Grady County. He lived in a house in an area known as Bluebird Hill, about halfway up, and one night, a nearby structure caught fire.

Bird went to go see what was up, witnessed the volunteer firefighters at work, and that was all it took.

"I was just really intrigued by what they did," Bird said.

About 38 years later, seven of those spent as fire chief in Moore, Bird will retire from what has been his lifelong profession at the end of May. It's seen plenty more ups than downs, and Bird said the group of guys and the leadership setup at the department right now makes it the perfect time for him to step aside.

"I'm going to be 60 this year, and I have almost 38 years in, and it's really a good lineup," Bird said. "I have a great deputy chief (Greg Herbster). I couldn't ask for better assistant chiefs. There's going to be some promotions, and there's a lot of good people that can move up into spots. The time is right for them."

Looking back, Bird said, he's amazed to see what the department was and what it has now become thanks to the work of the firefighters and support staff, past and present.

After that structure fire on Bluebird Hill, Bird said he was approached by the Ninnekah chief, who also happened to be a pastor at his church. He became a volunteer along with his brother, who ran a tire shop. In between plumbing jobs, Bird would work at the shop. Not long after he signed up, he received his initiation.

"There was a grass fire one day, and he just come flying in and said 'Get in the truck, we've got to go!'" Bird said. "So that was my first fire, and I just fell in love with it. I absolutely loved it."

When the oil bust of the 80s hit, the Chickasha and Grady County area took it hard. Bird had to consider what his future would be, and he kept coming back to firefighting.

"The only other thing I knew how to do was fight fires, and I loved it," he said. "So the oil jobs dying, I guess it wasn't all bad."

It led him to Moore, where he became a full-time firefighter on Aug. 12, 1985. But back then, even Moore had its struggles.

"This department has come so far since I've been here," Bird said. "When I got here, the city was in such a struggling time. We would test, not hear anything, and I would call back and they'd say 'We froze the hiring because money is tight.' It took me about a year to get hired here because of that. It used to be bad. It went from a time where you wondered if paychecks would be there, or whether they'd clear, to now we drive new fire trucks, got a million-dollar ladder truck."

During Bird's time with the department, the city has built three new fire stations. The old Station 1 was located in the same building as the police department and city hall -- on the same land where the current police department is now at the corner of Main and Broadway -- when Bird started.

Even when the new city hall was constructed on Broadway, it was a squeeze.

"In the old station one, when you walked up the back steps, you were in the kitchen," Bird said. "There was no door [to the bedroom,] and it was the kitchen straight into the bedroom. If you wanted to make the coffee, you had to be really quiet, because they're all in there sleeping. The room was so small that there were bunk beds, and you could lay in bed at night and hold hands with the guy next you."

Bird said he never imagined he would become fire chief, even when Chief Charles Stephens made him his deputy. He thought both would retire at the same time.

The best job, Bird said, is being the driver.

"I love being the fire chief, don't get me wrong," Bird said. "But if I had my choice through the whole ranks, I'd probably pick driver. You get to do so many things. You drive the big red trucks, you hook up all the hoses, but when the captain's off, you get to act up and be captain. So you kind of get the best of both worlds. But mainly because you get to drive the big red truck."

When Stephens retired in 2012, then City Manager Steve Eddy immediately made Bird chief on June 30. Less than a year later, the department would be part of the relief effort of Moore's darkest day: the May 2013 tornado.

"I remember when President Obama walked through that back door," Bird said, pointing toward the back of Station 1, "looked at me and said 'So, how long you been fire chief? Quite awhile now?' And I said 11 months."

Less than a year later, Bird was invited to attend the 2014 State of the Union address.

Tornadoes -- 1999, 2003 and 2013 to be exact -- aren't something Bird likes to talk about. But he also understands it's something unique to his department now, in a similar way to how the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks are synonymous with the New York Fire Department.

Bird also understands how those events served to bring the community of Moore closer together. It's their understanding of first responders' needs that has left the biggest impression.

"I'm just so happy -- and the guys had a lot to do with it, don't get me wrong -- but the citizens have done so well of passing the tax issues, the safety tax, the half-cent sales tax that allowed us to build three fire stations," Bird said.

All of it adds up to make stepping down so difficult. Bird said at first he considered foregoing retirement and staying on a little longer, but after speaking with fellow area fire chiefs, and thinking hard about the situation, he knows the time is right.

"They all said when the time comes, it more or less is going to hit you," Bird said. "And you're going to know that, yeah, it's time."

That won't stop him from missing it.

"When you've done this for this long ... yeah, I will. I've got a great bunch of guys," Bird said. "You couldn't find a better place to work. I've had excellent bosses.

"I haven't had one bad step anywhere. It's a great job, and a great city to work for, too."

He and his wife plan to travel and take more vacations like the one they recently took to Destin, Florida, or maybe to see the wide open plains of Montana. He's not worried; he knows the department will keep moving on in the same direction.

They'll still answer the call, and they'll still take part in community events and roll out the big red truck for all the kids to see up close. And maybe, just like it happened 38 years ago, that experience will catch some young person's imagination.

"Hey, you get something instilled in a kid's mind, you don't know," Bird said. "You may be talking to a future firefighter."

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