Salute the Badge: Soldier Township chief marks 40+ years in firefighting

By Melissa Brunner
WIBW – April 4, 2017


Karl McNorton’s journey with the Soldier Township Fire Department started innocently enough. As a high schooler, he worked on a 4-H project, lobbying support for a bond issue to build a new fire station.

When he turned 18, he signed on a volunteer under his uncle who was chief.

“We were all pretty good family,” McNorton recalls. “Now, my mom on the other hand was a little anxious about me joining the first department, but I think she got over it after a while.”

Good thing, because he’s been at it a while.

After four years volunteering, McNorton was hired for a full-time position with the department. Four years later, he embarked on a 28-year career with the Kansas State Fire Marshal’s office, where he met his wife, Brenda. All the while, he continued to volunteer with Soldier Township, with Brenda as his side.

“This was home,” McNorton says of why he kept up the volunteer schedule in addition his full-time job. “It felt good to be giving back to my community and helping out my neighbors.”

So when retirement came, it didn’t last long.

“60 days…technically,” McNorton laughs.

While he said he did enjoy his weeks of time helping his daughters and grandchildren, McNorton took the job as Soldier Township’s Fire Chief. Now, with 40 plus years in all under his belt he’s seen a lot of changes. Trucks and equipment are more high-tech, with safety a focus.

“When I started, our fire department had four air packs. Now we have 24 airs packs on trucks, everyone has a mask. My first fire coat didn’t even have a liner in it,” he said.

As much is done to protect physical safety, McNorton also advocates addressing mental health, helping bring a peer counseling program for emergency responders to the area.

“Going back to the good old days, it was, ‘Suck it up and move on. You’re okay.’ Well, no you’re not because what the eyes have seen, the mind won’t let you unsee and you need to learn to be able to deal and manage those kinds of events,” he said.

McNorton has seen events of many kinds over the years. He said each call is important, but one of the most memorable for him happened in the mid-1990s, when a gas line leak suddenly flashed over and exploded.

“I felt really good about the fact that we probably saved, at leastways, if not injury, possible death of several civilians from an underground gas leak that ignited. We just happened to be right there,” he said.

It is that depth of experience that proves invaluable. Soldier Township Capt. Brian Flott said senior leadership is vital to a department that relies on young volunteers filling the ranks.

“He’s seen so many more fire scenes than what the new guys have seen,” Flott said. “You can learn a lot from books and you can learn a lot from videos that you see, but an actual person that you have on your department who’s experienced it and lived it – pulling from them is a whole different ball game.”

But even after 40 years, you run into something new. In early March, Soldier Township assisted with a wildfire north of Silver Lake that suddenly turned into a tornado scene. McNorton says he’s never seen anything like it – and hasn’t talked to anyone else who had either.

“I’m looking at this deal and I see a black cloud going up from the ground, I’m thinking, ‘Is somebody else burning?’ Well, it kept getting closer to me and I says, ‘Nope! We got a tornado!'” he said.

That’s why McNorton’s not ready to hang up his helmet just yet. There’s still more to see – still more to offer.

“If I retired, I couldn’t sit at home and do nothing anyway,” he said, “and I might just as well be putting my skills to use here and helping out the community.”

McNorton has seen Soldier Township’s fire force grow, too. He said they’ve gone from two paid firefighters and fewer than 20 volunteers when he started as a volunteer, to seven paid positions and more than 40 volunteers today.


Posted by Gwen Dorr Romine, KSFFA Webmaster
KSFFA’s Fire News Blog Home Page

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