From family man to fire chief and back again
November 30, 2015
For 36 years in the rescue service, Tom Openlander, retired Kirkwood fire chief, stressed leadership and honor no matter what rescue team he was on.
“Leadership is demanding,” Openlander said. “You have to give it your all, and [you] are responsible for everyone all the time. If you’re trying to inspire or motivate your team and be the best for the community, it takes a lot out of you. At a certain point you realize you have given it all you got, and if you really care about the job you step aside and let new leadership step in.”
Openlander worked in the fire service for 36 years, including 18 years as Kirkwood’s fire chief. Prior to serving Kirkwood, Openlander worked in both Shrewsbury and Webster Groves. Before a friend suggested Openlander apply for Kirkwood’s chief position, he had no intention of moving from Webster.
“I didn’t think I was ready to be a fire chief,” Openlander said. “I loved what I was doing, working on shift, and responding to fires. As I went further in the process, I made it down to the final three individuals being interviewed for the job. I remember thinking, ‘I guess I better decide if I am going to do this or not.’”
Openlander retired in 2005 in order to regain his health after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a year and a half after he was appointed Kirkwood fire chief. But in 2007, Openlander returned to duty.
“It was a difficult and demanding job and on top of that an exhausting disease,” Openlander said. “I knew I had to work on my health and put energy into getting strong and fit again.”
Openlander said the shift from working with strangers in Webster to working with his community in Kirkwood changed his perspective of service. The work became more personal as he dealt with neighbors.
“As a fire chief I am always on call; 24-7, 365 days a year,” Openlander said. “All of a sudden I am responsible for the well-being of friends, family and neighbors. If one of them gets hurt, it’s personal.”
Openlander was intrigued by service work since he was a child. He said his intelligence favored a paramedic career while his athleticism suited the fire service. He decided to combine his skills to make a positive impact on his community.
“My father died of a heart attack when I was 11 1/2,” Openlander said. “The ambulance took my father away and I never saw him again. I later realized since he was a businessman, he worked himself to death. I remember sitting at his funeral and thinking how worthless it was. I don’t have a father, my mother doesn’t have a husband, and someone will be sitting in his chair tomorrow. I did not want that to be my life. I had to figure out how I can make a difference.”
Openlander is responsible for the improvements to Kirkwood fire stations along with the creation of a Kirkwood ambulance system he said. Throughout his years of service, Openlander experienced the ups and downs of the Kirkwood community. In 2008, he was present during the Kirkwood City Hall shooting. In the summer of 2014 during the events in Ferguson, Openlander missed his family’s Thanksgiving dinner to help at the Clayton service center.
“I had the honor to be part of teams that saved people’s lives throughout my career,” Openlander said. “People were clinically dead when my team got to the scene; white, purple, grey and on the floor. But we did our job well, and it was God’s plan that they survived. Giving people even an extra day to say goodbye means the world. I couldn’t control what happened before I got there, but it was in my hands to control what happened after I got there. That is the part I will miss.”