Fresh start: La Crosse Fire Chief Ken Gilliam heads to Arizona after 5 years in La Crosse

Gilliam to become chief at Avondale Fire Department outside Phoenix

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — Opening a new door requires closing the one behind you.

La Crosse Fire Chief Ken Gilliam, who is resigning from his post in La Crosse, said he is proud of the team he helped build and now will leave behind.

A life saved is possible only when someone is willing to run toward danger.

“We contain fires to the room of origin in a structure 99 percent of the time. That’s worth its weight in gold, as far as citizens asking what are they getting for their investment here,” Gilliam said.

“It sounds stickish, but – you get the opportunity to help someone on the worst day of their life,” said Gilliam, who has been in firefighting and emergency services for 20 years.

He’s served five of those years with La Crosse. One memory sticks with Gilliam: the night the city lost the Casino Bar in February 2021, without the loss of anyone’s life.

“Absolutely proud of the organization. We kept half a city block from burning down,” Gilliam said. “You know, everything went right that night.”

However, Gilliam said he needs a fresh start.

“Kinda getting stuck in the mud a little bit,” he said.

Next month he’ll become chief of the Avondale, Ariz., Fire Department near Phoenix.

“Yeah, big change,” Gilliam said. “Yeah, I think winters will be good. I’m not buying the dry heat angle just yet.”

The La Crosse department needs a new voice after the challenges COVID-19 left behind, he said.

“All of us would love to think that the world will collapse as soon as we leave a job, but you know the department’s been here since 1896. I’m pretty certain the day after I’m gone, they’re gonna delete my email account,” Gilliam said with a smile.

Gilliam said the badge he wears is bigger than himself.

“It’s not about any individual,” he said.

As his service to La Crosse fades, it won’t extinguish his passion to serve people when a 911 call comes in.

“I sense that the community loves this fire department as much as I do,” Gilliam said. “I think it’s a great group of people doing great things and I’m optimistic for the future.”

He’ll lead a new team of people who risk their lives all the same to save others.

The La Crosse Police and Fire Commission has begun a national search for a new chief.

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