Bobbie McKenzie, who died last week at 71, served 41 years in the Rome-Floyd County Fire Department —18 years as chief — and implemented many of the changes that modernized the department’s organization and its approach to firefighting.
As local officials learned of his death last week, they spoke of McKenzie as a technological leader, a great storyteller and a dedicated family man.
Battalion Chief Phil Taylor, who started working at the fire department 33 years ago, said McKenzie’s biggest legacy will be the effect he had on the training process, helping to develop a coordinated system of education in rookie school.
That sense of professionalism that McKenzie instilled in every new recruit to the Rome-Floyd Fire Department has stood the test of time as Greater Rome’s firefighters moved into the modern era.
“He’s the one that really spearheaded that and kept the ball rolling,” said Taylor.
Four years ago, when McKenzie announced his retirement, Rome City Manager John Bennett credited him with improving the level of firefighting in Greater Rome: “The entire county has seen improved fire protection with the relocation of many stations and the purchase of new and more sophisticated equipment.”
Bennett remembered McKenzie as a very steady person with a heart of gold who was very knowledgeable about fire fighting techniques and prevention.
“Just about all the firemen were trained by him,” said Bennett. “Everyone loved him because he was the one who taught them everything they knew.”
While many remember McKenzie as a great trainer, it was in the field of technology that McKenzie left his greatest mark on the Rome-Floyd County Fire Department.
Gordon Henderson, who was named fire chief when McKenzie retired in 2008, remembered McKenzie as a workhorse who put himself through Berry College by working in the dairy and credited his experience as a radio operator in the Army for fostering a love of technology that he spread throughout the department.
“He looked 10 to 15 years ahead of today to see what might be coming up in the future of the fire services and trying to start working towards applying that now,” said Henderson. “He worked to keep us sort of on the cutting edge and where we didn’t get behind the curve.”
The cutting edge may not say it all. In many cases McKenzie was on the experimental front line.
Deputy Chief Benny Bohannon recalled McKenzie piecing together a computer from several different machines in 1988 and installing it in the fire department, making it the first computerized department in the city.
Under McKenzie, the fire department was one of the first departments in the city to implement the use of computer technology throughout the entire operation.
Bohannon also credited McKenzie with being one of the first chiefs that trusted people in the department to do their jobs and didn’t pressure anyone by trying to micromanage.
Even in retirement, he remained passionate about protecting Greater Rome from fires, writing in this newspaper in support of sprinklers in downtown businesses.
When he was named chief, McKenzie told this newspaper, “The chief’s job does not take him to the end of the nozzle, the end of the hose. The job keeps him well back, but he has got to know the rigors that the people are experiencing out on the hose line to make sure that you have people out there who are prepared. … I look forward to facing that challenge.”
Chief Bobbie McKenzie met that challenge and more during his 41 years with the Rome-Floyd County Fire Department and his 18 years as chief. He set the standard for years to come.