After three and a half decades, Keith Bryant reaching end of Oklahoma City fire career
On April 19 this year, Oklahoma City Fire Chief Keith Bryant stood on the same hallowed ground his boots touched 22 years earlier, as a young captain.
On what was once the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, now sits a reflecting pool and a field of chairs representing those killed by a bomb blast.
Now 58, Bryant is in his last weeks as leading Oklahoma's largest fire department, ending a department career that began 35 years ago. His next duty assignment will be national in scope, heading the U.S. Fire Administration, the lead federal agency overseeing the nation's fire prevention and control efforts.
Bryant enlisted during his senior year at U.S. Grant High School and joined Army immediately after graduating in 1977. His military career as a firefighter took him to Illinois, Kentucky, Alaska and ended at the Yuma Proving Ground, in southwestern Arizona.
But his interest in the fire service was sparked years earlier, when he was a Boy Scout. Some of his scoutmasters were firefighters, and as an Eagle Scout, he joined an Explorer post sponsored by the department.
"That's where I saw the work," Bryant said. "They would take us out to multiple-alarm fires and let us pick up hose and things like that. That's where I got to actually start being around firefighters and the work they did, and really, that was it at that point."
'The work was the work'
After his Army service ended, Bryant returned to central Oklahoma, serving for six months with the Edmond Fire Department before coming to Oklahoma City. His first firehouse in Oklahoma City was the old Station 7 in Capitol Hill, followed by the old Station 8 in the Stockyards.
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In April 1995, Bryant served as a B shift captain at Fire Station 5. Wednesday, the 19th, was his day off. He was sitting in his Tuttle home, reading the paper and drinking coffee, when he felt a rumble.
"It wasn't very strong out there where I lived, but enough for me to notice," he said.
A neighbor called and told him to turn on his TV. Another firefighter called shortly after. All off-duty Oklahoma City firefighters were being called in to work.
Bryant made it to the Murrah building about noon, after the fears of a possible secondary explosive device forced rescue workers to withdraw and regroup. Bryant was assigned to a crew and began searching the wreckage for survivors.
In the days that followed, as Bryant returned to the site again and again, he tried to focus on the work. He knew family members were waiting for news about loved ones. That knowledge gave him a sense of purpose throughout the grim task of recovering bodies, he said.
"The work was the work. You showed up," Bryant said. "You got an assignment down there, especially after about the second or third day, you knew what the situation was. You knew you were going to be recovering victims."
'We were doing our job'
This year, Bryant was not actively involved in the annual remembrance ceremony, though he does serve on an Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum advisory committee. During the ceremony, Bryant stood on the memorial's lawn alongside Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty, a captain and department spokesman in 1995.
"There's not really too many people left on the department that were on the department in '95, but we tend to shy away from those events," Bryant said. "I don't think it's for any other reason than that we don't want any attention to be focused on us. We were doing our job."
Bryant continued doing his job, serving as district chief and a deputy chief before becoming the head of the department in 2005. Although he's enjoyed the new responsibilities, Bryant said he's missed running calls, and has tried to go out to fire scenes whenever he can.
"I can't make every one of them, obviously, but bigger fires, multiple alarms and stuff, I like to show up," Bryant said.
Bryant has three grown sons — Matthew, Scott and Adam — with his wife of 35 years, Terri. On Saturday mornings, he has a standing golf game. Last year, he and his wife bought a house in Pensacola, Florida, where he hopes to spend some time fishing.
In April, Bryant said he had not set a retirement date.
"I still enjoy what I do, so I'll keep doing it for the foreseeable future," he said. "I think I'll get that nod from the big guy or whatever at some point, saying it's time to go, but I know it's coming up."
But that wasn't completely true.
At the time, Bryant was sworn to confidentiality over a possible appointment. In May, he was named by President Donald J. Trump to be the future U.S. fire administrator. That position will make him the top firefighting official in the federal government.
Colleagues at the department will be sorry to see him go. Battalion Chief Benny Fulkerson called it an honor to be able to report directly to Bryant, and said he's been impressed with the chief's leadership.
"Watching him handle numerous and complex issues on a daily basis with incredible poise and integrity has truly been inspirational," Fulkerson said.
As of June 21, Bryant was still undergoing the vetting process, which will place him under the umbrella of the Federal Emergency Management Agency when completed. Bryant said he's confident the department will move forward without him when the time comes for him to leave.
"My retirement from the fire department is something I've never looked forward to and still don't," Bryant said. "It will be difficult to leave."
Assistant City Manager M.T. Berry, who supervises the public safety division, said he'll be sorry to see the chief leave. Berry was involved in hiring Bryant, a decision he says proved to be a good one. He called Bryant an effective leader who knows the department front to back.
"We hate to lose him as the fire chief, but we're looking forward to his new career," Berry said. "We're certainly proud of him and wish him well on his next adventure."