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East Manatee firefighter earns top honor before retiring

Kim Luther finishes her 20-year career with East Manatee Fire Rescue by being named Manatee County Fire Officer of the Year.

Kim Luther finished off a 20-year career with East Manatee Fire Rescue by earning the 2022 Fire Officer of the Year award.
Kim Luther finished off a 20-year career with East Manatee Fire Rescue by earning the 2022 Fire Officer of the Year award.
Photo by Jay Heater
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It was a sleepless 48 hours, a stretch of time unlike any other for Kim Luther as Hurricane Ian ripped a swath of destruction through Manatee County in late September, leaving in its wake catastrophic flooding conditions.

In many ways, the following first few days of October were even more dangerous than the hurricane itself, as rising waters left many Manatee County residents in peril.

Luther, the administrative officer for East Manatee Fire Rescue, worked parts of those days and nights as a district fire coordinator, making sure the personnel in the field were getting as many resources as possible to get the work done.

"It was all hands on deck," said Luther, who had just received the Manatee County Fire Officer of the Year award during a March 23 ceremony at East Manatee Fire Rescue Station 1.

Luther received the award for her body of work over the course of the year, but the hurricane certainly was an example of why she earned the recognition award from the Manatee County Fire Chiefs' Association.

"She absolutely earned every bit of that award," East Manatee Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Paul Wren said. "It was well deserved."

Wren said when he was deployed to Sanibel Island following the hurricane, Luther would call him twice a day to see what he needed and how she could help.

"It was like comfort from home," he said. "We're sorry to see her go."

The awards ceremony came a couple weeks after Luther's retirement party to honor her for a 20-year career with East Manatee Fire Rescue.

She said her final complete year of 2022 involved some very intense times, such as the hurricane and the scrapyard fire in December at Aceros America,13838 Harllee Road in Palmetto.

Virginia Luther says her daughter, Kim Luther, didn't show that she wanted to be a firefighter growing up, but she did show "she wanted to be the boss."
Photo by Jay Heater

She explained that the fire coordinator duties rotate within the department.

"Every time I have been a fire coordinator, it seems like there has been a black cloud over my head," she said.

How she dealt with those black clouds earned her the award.

Her training over the years prepared her to handle situations that were somewhat different to the department in the aftermath of the hurricane.

"You are so focused that you are hitting everything you need for safety, and making sure (the 'first-in' teams of fire personnel) have the resources they need," she said. "It was more intense over a longer period of time, and this time, we were using different resources because we didn't have Myakka before."

East Manatee Fire Rescue and the Myakka City Fire Control District merged in 2021.

Although Luther spent time in charge of the hurricane operation, she said it was a collaborative effort from beginning to end.

"Really, we operate as a para-military," she said. "We have rules to follow that keep us safe, and you have faith in people you put in their positions. We have some dynamic fire coordinators."

She said one of the important takeaways from the hurricane was that "it is important to appreciate the people we work with. Without a team, there is no way any of us could do this."

All teams need leaders and Luther's mother, Virginia Luther, said even if it wasn't apparent that her daughter would be a firefighter, she knew "she always wanted to be the boss."

Virginia Luther was beaming about her daughter's award.

"I couldn't be more proud," she said. "I am already 9-foot-11."

Virginia Luther wasn't so happy, though, when he daughter told her almost a quarter century ago that she had decided to leave her job as an assistant in the administration department of Sarasota Memorial Hospital and pursue firefighting. She didn't want her daughter to be put in danger.

"I wanted to go into the medical field," Kim Luther said. "But I had a friend who was a battalion chief in Sarasota County. He suggested I would be good at this."

So she began working as a volunteer with the Sarasota County Fire Department.

The first call she went on as a volunteer involved a serious crash involving a 16-year-old. She said she couldn't do anything for the victim, but she could console the family.

"Right then I thought, 'This is what I want to do,'" she said. "I could give them a hug while they cried. I was helping someone in need. I was good at it."

She began working for East Manatee Fire Rescue on Feb. 3, 2003.

"I will miss helping our community and I will miss the people," she said about going into retirement."

Kim Luther of East County Fire Rescue receives the 2022 Fire Officer of the Year award from Stacey Bailey, the president of the Manatee County Fire Chiefs' Association.
Photo by Jay Heater

She eventually shifted from being a firefighter to an administrative role.

"I knew I was getting older," she said. "Your body can only handle so much of this job."

Luther said as she stepped away from firefighting duties, she took on less of a hands-on role.

"You are at the drone level," she said. "You have a bird's eye view of everything."

She is proud of her award and her career.

"Everybody leaves their mark on the fire service," she said. "I left a positive mark and I achieved my goals. What you leave behind is what carries your name on.

"You have to want to do this job. When you take this career, you are taking other people's lives in your hands. You need to have the desire to get the job done."

Her departure leaves the department without a female firefighter or administrator. She said that is OK.

"It was very challenging for me and it took a lot of time and effort. But we shouldn't fit this job into a demographic just to get people hired," she said. "It will get someone killed."

She noted that she had been in charge of a training test and applicants for firefighting jobs were having trouble passing it. She said it included a stair climb, hose drag and raising a ladder, among other things. Those applying had to complete the test in under 7 minutes.

"People were not passing it," she said. "So I went out and took the test. I was 52 at the time and I finished it in 7:20. You just needed to train for it. I told them we shouldn't change the time."

She will miss interacting with "the guys."

"Oh my gosh, there are some great guys here," she said of the department's personnel. "They will do anything for each other. It's like a family, where you like them today and then you get irritated with them."

Already, she said her days are filled with family obligations so she will do just fine with retirement. But, again, she said she will miss her interaction with people.

"Those people, they call 911 for a reason," she said. "I knew I was there for a purpose. I could be with them. I could help them. It was about human contact, letting them know they are important, they are loved, and they are not alone."



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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