Exemplary service

Fire Chief Jim McSwain will be a tough act to follow.

There are some jobs where being a worrier probably is an advantage.

Lawrence Fire Chief Jim McSwain has had one of those jobs for the past 27 years and, as he prepares to retire, it’s hard to imagine anyone who could have served Lawrence better.

McSwain said the increased “stress and the worry about my people” was a sign it was time to hand over the reins to someone younger. Maybe so, but, over the years, Lawrence has been fortunate to have someone like McSwain worrying about its safety.

McSwain came to Lawrence in 1978 to take over the city’s fire department. In 1997, he became chief of the merged Lawrence-Douglas County Fire and Medical, which includes the county’s ambulance service. He oversees 132 employees and a $9.5 million budget in a department that responded to 8,653 emergency calls last year. During his tenure, two new fire stations have been built and a third is under way.

And whether he was driven by worry or simply a desire for excellence, McSwain has been an aggressive advocate for fire safety and emergency services in Lawrence. The fire department’s ideas weren’t always popular, (advocating the installation of sprinkler systems in downtown buildings and a ban on Fourth of July fireworks come to mind) but the goal always was to protect Lawrence, its residents and its emergency personnel.

In the process, McSwain helped boost the city’s fire insurance rating and build the department’s reputation for efficiency and professionalism. Over the years, many people have been grateful for the services of the local fire department and amazed at the way firefighters go the extra mile to rescue family mementos and pets and minimize water damage by actually entering burning houses to cover furniture with tarps.

During major fires such as the 1997 blaze that gutted Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop on Massachusetts Street, local firefighters skillfully managed the flames and prevented them from spreading and causing far more extensive damage.

As his retirement was announced this week, McSwain drew praise as a leader and innovator who knew how to manage people and press the fire department to new levels of excellence. Although he estimated the average tenure for a fire chief these days is about five years, McSwain has shown his commitment to Lawrence by staying on the job for 27 years. Given his reputation, he surely had opportunities to leave, but decided instead to stay here and take care of his “people” and the rest of Lawrence.

Now, it’s our turn to worry – about how to replace someone like McSwain. The community owes the chief a vote of thanks for 27 years of exemplary service to Lawrence.