It was in his first months as interim fire chief that Bernie Kanger showed his mayor he was the right man for the job.
He and Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert were at a Martin Luther King Day event in 2014 when word came of the collapse of the International Nutrition plant in south central Omaha, Stothert recalled Tuesday. Kanger had been on the job about four months.
“He immediately left,” the mayor said. “We followed in my car ... to the scene. And he literally took control of that operation. And he was a relatively new chief then. And (I was) so impressed with his ability and his ability to handle things so calmly. ... Very new at his job, and he handled it like an expert. And so I knew at that time he was absolutely the right choice.”
The word “interim” was removed from Kanger’s job title three months later. Two years later, Kanger’s tenure as fire chief is nearing its end. Stothert announced Tuesday that Kanger, 46, will retire after he reaches 25 years of service. His last day will be May 6. An interim chief will be appointed and a national search conducted in order to select the fire department’s next chief.
Kanger said Wednesday that he made the decision to retire because of the toll the job had been taking on his family.
He said he hasn't applied for any other fire chief jobs or made a decision about what he will do next.
The decision to retire wasn't an easy one, Kanger said.
"I love this organization," he said. "I love the fire service."
But Kanger said he had accomplished Stothert's goal for him, which was to get the department's budget under control.
Stothert said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference that she credits Kanger with turning around the department, noting that for the first time in many years, the Fire Department is projected to be $1 million under budget.
Kanger also said he accomplished the goals he set for himself, which were to improve public perception of the Fire Department and to gain recognition for the department. He said the latter happened after the International Nutrition collapse and when Ebola patients came to Omaha.
Kanger said being fire chief is "a remarkable experience, one that I'm grateful for."
At the Tuesday press conference, Stothert praised Kanger, noting the many incidents firefighters under his leadership have had to deal with — International Nutrition, the dormitory blaze at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the recent M’s Pub fire.
Stothert said she had not known until Tuesday when she received Kanger’s resignation letter that he planned on retiring, though she said she was aware he soon would become eligible.
“I’m sad he’s leaving. I wish he would stay longer,” she said. “But this is his personal decision to make.”
Kanger was named interim chief of the Omaha Fire Department in August 2013 and got the permanent title in April 2014.
Before Stothert hired Kanger, she clashed with previous Fire Chief Mike McDonnell, who served about six and a half years as interim chief and then chief.
Omaha firefighter union President Steve LeClair said he began to hear rumblings in August or September that Kanger would soon leave the department. In December, Kanger demurred when LeClair asked him about his plans.
“I’m eligible to leave in April, and that’s all I can say,” the chief said then, according to LeClair.
The union president said he hoped that the office would not become a revolving door.
“It seems to be heading in that direction,” he said. “That office deserves continuity.”
LeClair said there were several strong internal candidates for chief but that a broader search might reveal a hidden gem.
Kanger’s base pay in 2014 was about $150,000 and his total income was $170,000. His base 2016 salary is $160,000.
His pension payment won’t be finalized until it goes before the pension board next month.
Chris Martin, director of airline affairs and airport operations for Eppley Airfield, said Kanger would be “a great catch” for any department. Eppley has had its own fire department since 1991; original Fire Chief Gary Schott has retired but returned and now serves in an interim capacity. Martin says he has no immediate plans to change that.
“Chief Kanger and I have had discussions in the past. My comment to him has been if you ever retire we would certainly be interested in you joining our team,” Martin said. “I think he’ll be a very sought after person because of his leadership skills.”
Staff writer Emerson Clarridge contributed to this report.