PAOLA — For nearly 50 years, Robert “Bob” Harris was the face of the Paola Fire Department.
Whenever a call came in to the old fire station attached to Paola City Hall, Harris was never far away. In fact, he usually was across the street, working at his business — Bob’s Automotive.
Harris would jump in a vehicle and head to the fire, possibly stopping briefly along the way to pick up a fellow firefighter such as Arlin Prothe or Dennis Hinman.
“The fire department was his life,” Hinman said. “Saturdays and Sundays, he was always on call. He always wanted to be the first one at a fire.”
Even after Harris retired in 2006, the fire department remained a part of his life. While fixing radios and refilling fire extinguishers out of his small shop on Silver Street, Harris would keep a close watch on the department he led for nearly five decades.
“He was still listening to the scanner up to a few days before he got ill,” Hinman said. “He kept a list, and when he heard a number he didn’t recognize, he would call and ask us which firefighter that was. He was always keeping track of the department.”
Members of that department have been in mourning since learning that Harris passed away Wednesday, June 19, at the age of 91.
Current fire chief Andy Martin said Harris’ legacy can be seen all throughout the department.
“He was the turning point of the fire department really getting into training,” Martin said.
Harris also fought in the early 1980s to get the first Hurst Rescue Tool, also known as the Jaws of Life, into the county.
“Hard saying how many dozens of lives he saved with that equipment,” Martin said. “We ran so many of those grinder calls back before the cars were as safe as they are now.”
Harris’ legacy also lives on in the everyday language of the Paola firefighters. To most firefighters across the country, the strategy of getting a hose spraying water onto a fire as quick as possible is known as “resetting” the fire. To Paola firefighters, the practice is called “Bob’n” the fire.
The procedure was affectionately named after the department’s former chief, who practiced it frequently.
“He’d get off a truck, pull a booster line out, stick it in a window and have the fire out before the other guys finished putting their gear on,” Martin said.
During a recent training class in Olathe, Martin said he remembers getting a curious look from the instructor after Martin was asked what he would do in the training scenario.
“Well, I’d ‘Bob’ that fire,” Martin remembers saying.
Harris joined the Paola Fire Department in 1957 and was promoted to chief in 1969. He was already a veteran when he recruited Prothe in 1971, Hinman in 1973 and countless others. He hired Martin in 1992 and eventually passed the torch to him upon retirement in 2006 after 49 years of service.
“He always did a good job,” Prothe said of his longtime chief.
A lot has changed over the years for the department, which has grown from a handful of volunteers to 28 trained firefighters, but Hinman said the department has always taken pride in protecting and serving the local community. That’s something Harris always made sure of.
“I remember he did a great job on the Hadlock Cabinet fire (1983), and we saved the house next door in the middle of a blizzard,” said Hinman, who recently received his 45-year service pin from the city of Paola. “We had a pretty good team.”