By Brian Sherman for The Island Eye News
Ken Briscoe has retired twice, but it seems he still keeps coming back to the profession that has defined his life. In the latest iteration of his firefighting career, he’s serving as interim fire chief for the Isle of Palms. And though by the beginning of 2022 he might be back at Oak Island, North Carolina, whiling away his days fishing and spending time with his family, he said he’ll be carrying out his duties in his current job “just like I’m going to be here forever.”
Briscoe, who spent his fire service career in North Carolina, retiring from the Tarheel State’s Department of Insurance in 2004 and as chief of the Lenoir Fire Department in 2018, reported to work in IOP on Sept. 23, less than two days after the Isle of Palms City Council voted to hire him on a temporary basis to replace Ann Graham, the longtime IOP chief who retired at the end of last year. During his first eight days on the island, he lived, ate and slept at IOP’s main fire station.
“There’s 10 firemen on each shift. Eating and living with them for a week or so helped me understand their concerns and interact with them,” he explained, pointing out that in his first week on IOP, he met 32 of the 34 people who work for the department. The other two were on vacation.
“They need to get to know me, and I need to get to know them,” he said. “This is the best way to do it.” Starting on the first of October, Briscoe and his wife, Paula, lived in the Sea Cabins on Front Beach. They planned to move to Wild Dunes for November and December. After that, they’ll return to Oak Island – or possibly stay awhile. His contract, which goes through the end of this year, could be extended. “I wouldn’t get in a hurry,” he cautioned when asked about how long the city should take to find a permanent fire chief. “Make sure this person is the right fit for the city of Isle of Palms.” Briscoe has spent his entire professional life in the fire service, even handling the somewhat related job of installing sprinkler systems in Georgia for a while. He launched his career at the Hudson, North Carolina, Volunteer Fire Department in 1973 and landed his first paid job as a firefighter in Lenoir in 1975. He moved on to the Department of Insurance in 1984, stayed there for 20 years and was lured back to Lenoir as chief in June 2004. When he retired from that job, he thought he was finally, completely and totally retired. He regularly brushed off phone calls from recruiters until he was contacted in August of this year. “I told him I wasn’t interested, but, when he said it was at the beach, that got my attention,” Briscoe remembered. That’s how Briscoe, who hadn’t pulled a regular shift in a fire station since 1984, ended up spending eight days and nights learning firsthand about the Isle of Palms Fire Department. “It’s a good Fire Department with good people, and they’re hungry for leadership, structure and guidance,” he said. “My job is to have a good, easy transition to the new chief. I’ll take care of the small issues, just like I’m going to be here forever, so less time has to be spent by the new chief on the city’s and the citizens’ needs.”
“I don’t want a full-time job,” Briscoe added. “But I want to leave the Fire Department better than I found it. This is all I’ve ever done. It’s all I ever wanted to do.”