Journal-Times (Grayson, KY)

November 13, 2013

OHFD: A leader's spark ignites excellence

Second in a series

By Joe Lewis - Staff Writer
Journal-Times

Nov. 13, 2013 — Attitude reflects leadership.

That memorable quote from “Remember the Titans” is more than just a feel-good mantra. It's a fundamental principle that has shaped the Olive Hill Fire Department for the last six years during Wes Gilliam's tenure as chief.

Firefighting is in the Carter County native's blood. It's a passion he can trace back to his teenage years, when he was part of the Grahn Volunteer Fire Department.

“When I went through high school, I knew there were two things I wanted to do: fly and be a firefighter. I took the flight test for the military and did quite well, but the day before enlistment something told me it wasn't what I was supposed to do. So I went the very next day and enrolled at Eastern Kentucky University instead,” said Gilliam.

He went on to graduate from EKU in 1996 with a degree in fire engineering and immediately began serving as a firefighter in Richmond.

Three years later, he began his service with the Lexington Fire Department, at which point he and his family moved back home to Olive Hill. It was during this time that Gilliam began volunteering with the Olive Hill Fire Department.

During Gilliam's time as chief, the Olive Hill Fire Department has doubled its volunteer base and become one of most highly trained and well-equipped operations in the region.

His work to reshape the culture at the station has earned him a great deal of admiration, not just at the firehouse, but in the town as well.

“When my son was 16 he wanted to join the fire department, but I never would have let him if Wes hadn't been the chief,” said Carolyn Callihan, who owns Tyler's Pizza.

“He's a real person of integrity. Everyone in the community respects him,” she added.

Running the department hasn't been without its share of challenges for Gilliam, however.

His operating budget was $119,000 when he took over as chief. Since then, Gilliam has seen that number continually decrease. This year's budget is $58,000 – less than half of what it was when he started.

Ironically, Gilliam jokes that year after year of pleading his case for more operating funds to the city's elected officials has often caused him more frustration and stress than the hundreds of emergency calls he's responded to as a firefighter.

Despite all the headaches and red tape, however, he continues to spend untold hours at the station searching for ways to scrimp together money to maintain equipment and provide high quality training for his group of volunteers.

“It's tough sometimes. It sure would be a lot easier to hang it up and go on home. I could get a lot more yard work done. But I'm not a person who just quits,” said Gilliam. “Since day one I have put everything I have into seeing this department be the very best it can be, and that's what I'll keep doing.”

Joe Lewis can be reached at jlewis@journal-times.com or by telephone at 286-4201.