By Kelli Williams
City of Bartlesville
Photo by Jay Hastings
After a 42-year career with the City of Bartlesville, Fire Chief John Banks will officially retire effective July 1. Banks has been employed with the City since 1979, joining the Bartlesville Fire Department as a firefighter. He was promoted to equipment operator in 1989, then to captain in 2000. He was named fire chief in 2014.
Banks has received many accolades during his distinguished career, including the Firefighter of The Year Award in 2003 and 2009, the Award of Merit from Oklahoma State Firefighters Association in 2007 — for an ice rescue at Jo Allyn Lowe Lake — and four Certificates of Appreciation from The City of Bartlesville.
He sat down with City Beat recently to reflect on his life, career and the fire service that has played such an important role in his life.
Tell us a little about your early life — where you grew up and went to school, and about your family.
My Dad grew up in Bartlesville and my Mom was from Willingboro, England. They were married in England during the Second World War. They came back to Bartlesville and started raising a family in a little community west of town, in Osage County, that most people have never heard of: Pruneville.
I was born in Bartlesville July 20, 1956, and grew up in a rural setting, learning to hunt and fish and growing up outdoors. We had a small grocery store that the locals shopped at named Minich Grocery, and I attended grade school at Osage Hills School. After completing the sixth grade at Osage Hills School I came to Bartlesville to attend Central (Jr. High) School and graduated from College High School in 1974.
Back then I had several friends and one family member, Rocky Banks, that worked for the Bartlesville Fire Department. Rocky had suggested that I consider coming to work for the fire department, and in April of 1979 I did just that.
Since then other members of my family have also joined the fire service. I have a cousin, Kelly Banks, that is a captain with the Bartlesville Fire Department and another cousin, Cody Banks, that is an assistant fire marshal for the Tulsa Fire Department.
In what ways has the fire service changed since you began your career?
The fire service has changed dramatically over my career. When I came into the fire service we responded to fires, rescues that required extrication, mostly from vehicle accidents, and the occasional medical emergency call that may have required performing CPR or helping deliver a child.
Today’s fire departments have become “All Hazard Response Agencies.” Our members are fire safety educators, Emergency Medical Responders, and are trained in many types of rescue operations including swift water, rope rescue and urban search and rescue, just to name a few. We had very little equipment to perform these tasks.
Bartlesville Fire Department
How has the Bartlesville Fire Department changed since 1979?
The structure of the BFD has changed as well. The suppression force was made up of four captains, four drivers, three relief drivers, 10 firefighters, one dispatcher, one training officer, one assistant chief and a fire chief. There was no minimum manning, and if we didn’t have enough firefighters to cover all the stations for the day we would start blacking out stations. This practice stopped in the mid-1980s for safety reasons for the citizens as well as the firefighters. Firefighting was the most dangerous profession in the nation, and because of better equipment and training the fire service no longer holds that title. Firefighters are still in a very dangerous profession, but the fire service has made progress in making the profession safer than it was in the past.
You’ve worked your way up through nearly every position with the fire department before being named chief. What was that like, and what was your favorite position/assignment?
I didn’t realize it at the time, but being a senior firefighter and getting to help train and pass on firefighting skills to the rookies coming onto the department was what I enjoyed most. Taking the lead on the hose line and entering a structure fire dragging the younger recruits behind you, showing them how it’s done — those were some of the most fun times working on the department.
I was very fortunate to get to work with some of the best people you could ever hope to meet. This is a great profession, but you do carry some ghosts along with you after a long career. But I would do it all over again, given the opportunity.
What has been your greatest accomplishment(s) as chief?
My time as chief was short compared to my long career, but we have made some great accomplishments for the community. The department has taken delivery of three new pumper trucks, a Swift Water Rescue Boat and several support-type vehicles and safety equipment during my time as chief. We also have a new ladder platform pumper that will be bid this fall to replace a 1975 Snorkel truck. We also were able to reduce the City’s ISO rating from a Class 3 to a Class 2 department. That puts us in the top 10 percent of the State.
Do you have any regrets or things you wish you had done differently?
None that keep me awake at night. Like I stated earlier, I had the opportunity to work with some great people during my career, and that makes any regrets that you may have at any given time easier to work through.
What has been the best thing about being fire chief or working for the City of Bartlesville?
I’m just thankful that I had the opportunity to lead this department for the last six and a half years. Also getting to see how happy new recruits are when you call them into the office to let them know they have been selected as the next firefighter for the BFD (and) working to get equipment that we need to do our jobs more efficiently and safely. I have met a lot of people, some who have become not just acquaintances but friends that I most likely would not have ever had the opportunity to meet.
What has been the worst — or most challenging — thing about being Bartlesville fire chief?
I’ve been lucky during my time as chief. The City has been pretty much financially stable, making budget prep much easier than in past years before I became chief. Then along came COVID. No doubt, this past year has been very challenging. Fighting an enemy of this magnitude that we had never seen and didn’t know what to expect and, at times, how to react. Fear, concern, trust in our leadership, trust in our own judgement, how do we fix this, how do we respond — these are questions that we, as firefighters, don’t normally have any problems coming up with answers to. We’re problem solvers. But this was something like none of us had ever seen. Some underestimated the seriousness, some of us were borderline panicked, some stayed cool, some may have questioned their choice of becoming firefighters, and all of us were concerned for our families.
But I am proud to say that during the struggles and ever-changing circumstances over the last few months, all of us in City management never had anything but the best of intentions for everyone.
What challenges do you feel the department faces going into the future?
Recruitment. It’s becoming a nationwide problem. Departments in Oklahoma are developing recruitment teams to start going into schools and talking to high school juniors and seniors about considering the fire service as a career path. We have a team in place and had plans to start reaching out last year, but then COVID happened. Hopefully, that is something that can possibly happen this next school year.
How did you meet your wife? Tell us about her.
I met my wife Nancy, oddly enough, at the fire station. We started dating and were married about a year later, and have been married 39 years this July. She currently is the after care director at St. John’s School.
How many children and grandchildren do you have?
We have two children, John and Jena. My daughter, Jena Welter, and her husband Andy live in Tulsa. Jena and Andy are the parents to my 3-year-old grandson, Banks Thomas Welter, and my soon-to-be 2-year-old grandson, Rhett Thomas Welter. My son, John D. Banks, lives here in Bartlesville. John works for John Zinc in Tulsa. John and Donnita Peirce are parents to my two granddaughters, Emma and Chandler, and my grandson Jackson.
What does the future hold for John Banks?
I’m not sure what long-term things may come up. We have a few plans for the rest of this summer and fall, then we will see what comes next. I have two young grandsons that need to learn more about fishing and getting their hands dirty. That is one of the first things on the list. I haven’t ruled anything out as far as what I may or may not do in the future. I’m just going to take a deep breath and let life slow down a bit. I’ll be on the beach in Florida and at Grand Lake most of July.
First, I would like to say how much I appreciate the City of Bartlesville for allowing me to lead this fire department for the last six and a half years. I have enjoyed working for the City for all this time, and I truly know how blessed I have been to have had the opportunities put before me during my employment with the City. I could not have asked for better leadership than what I have had in (City Manager) Mike Bailey and (retired City Manager) Ed Gordon.
Thanks to the City Council for standing with me — and City staff — at times that it wasn’t popular to do so. This last year was a difficult one, as everyone is well aware, and I applaud their leadership through these unprecedented times. What a year.
As much as I am looking forward to being able to start my new life of unemployment, I believe I will miss this place. I have had a job of some type ever since I was about 12 years old, delivering Grit Newspapers. I do wonder how long it will last.
A come and go reception will be held for Banks from 2-4 p.m. on June 30 at City Hall, 401 S. Johnstone Ave. Everyone is invited to attend.
Feature (top), In parting (bottom) photos by Jay Hastings