ELLY GRIMM • Leader & Times
The job of the state fire marshal is very important and recently, the State of Kansas announced a new face in that position.
Earlier this month, Mark Engholm was announced as the State of Kansas’ new fire marshal. As Engholm tells it, his journey to his new position began at a young age.
“When I was growing up, there was a police officer in my hometown who was also a volunteer firefighter, which I thought was really neat. As I was getting older and thinking about what I wanted to do, I thought I'd have a full-time career in law enforcement and then serve as a volunteer firefighter,” Engholm said. “I loved firefighting, firefighting was almost like a hobby, and it was a great opportunity for me to work with those people. The people who volunteer as firefighters or emergency medical personnel in their communities are just outstanding people, and I really liked working with those groups. As soon as I turned 18, I became a volunteer firefighter and did that through college. When I turned 21, I was hired in Junction City as a sheriff's deputy/firefighter since that sheriff's office also housed the county fire department, so I would have my fire gear in the trunk of my patrol car in case I would need to respond to a call.”
Engholm’s work continued after graduating from college.
“After I graduated from Kansas State University, I was hired onto the Kansas Highway Patrol (KHP) and was stationed in Osage County and also worked for the fire department there. I transferred to Topeka sometime later and did the same thing until 2018, when I semi-retired from the fire service,” Engholm said. “At that same time, my career as a trooper was going on, and I did a lot of different work in that job along with my regular trooper responsibilities, including being a legislative liaison for the KHP and being the Public Information Officer. In 2014, I had accepted a transfer position where I was on loan to the FBI, and I did that until I retired just recently. That included working in counterterrorism, and I was part of the investigative team that handled the case regarding the three men who were found guilty of plotting to bomb an apartment complex in Garden City. I was also working with the Hazardous Materials team and the team that handles weapons of mass destruction. After all of that, and because of that mix of experience, I've ended up as the new State of Kansas Fire Marshal.”
Engholm added his new job was not entirely planned.
“I’d found out Doug Jorgensen had planned to retire in December after 12 years on the job and applications would soon be taken, so I submitted my application and went through that process and was fortunate to be selected,” Engholm said. “I officially started Nov. 13 and recently had my confirmation hearing before everyone. It's been kind of surreal because it's such a change from what I've done before, and It's a real honor. It's not something I'd planned in my career, and it wasn't something I was really seeking, so I'm humbled to be tapped for this kind of position, and I hope I do everything right.”
There are several things Engholm said he would like to tackle in his new job.
“One of the things I really want to do is be out and about among the firefighters and be able to visit with them and see what their concerns are and what we can do at the state level to help support them,” Engholm said. “As a former volunteer firefighter myself, I know the state is facing a real problem in getting recruits to the volunteer fire service – we're aging out a lot of volunteers, and especially in the rural areas, we're not seeing very many younger people stepping into those roles, and it's a real problem nationwide. Nationally, more than one-third of volunteer firefighters or 50 years old or older, and firefighting is a very demanding job physically and mentally, so I want to do everything I can at the state level to help support them and provide some solutions. Something else I want to do is make sure we have the regulatory side of things. We're tasked at the fire marshal's office with life safety, we're tasked with making sure you as an employee are safe at your place of business from the risk of fire. One event that really opened my eyes to the importance of inspections was the Great White concert in 2003 at The Station nightclub that resulted in 100 deaths and more than 200 injuries because people were trampling over each other trying to escape, so I want to see consistency in those inspections and make sure everything is as safe as possible for people.”
With a nationwide shortage of volunteer firefighters, Engholm said he also has some plans in mind to help in Kansas.
“There are already some efforts going on to help with that. Doug [Jorgensen] started a grant program for volunteer fire departments to help in recruiting and retention and equipment so those firefighters aren't paying out of pocket for their own gear,” Engholm said. “It's really important for firefighters to have safe protective gear – I've been in situations where I've had to piece together a uniform from hand-me-downs from other fire departments, and that's not good, so we're looking at investing in those grants. We're also investing money in equipment that will help the firefighters clean their gear properly – when I was a volunteer, the saying was a good firefighter never cleaned a thing, but we know now we were basically hauling carcinogens around on our uniforms that contaminated them, so we're helping get that information out there and investing in those efforts to help clean everything properly. With recruitment, a lot of those efforts have to come from the communities themselves – we're more than happy to help and provide support, but it's really up to the communities themselves to take on this issue because the departments are more aware than we are of what their community needs.”
Overall, Engholm said he hopes his past experiences will help in his new post.
“I like to tell people I'm like an interpreter because I speak both cop and firefighter since I've done both. I understand what it's like to be out at a fire at 2 a.m. when it's freezing rain and your gear is covered in ice, and I know what it's like to be out on patrol late at night,” Engholm said. “When it comes to emergency response, those people see some absolutely horrible tragedies, and I know how that feels, so my understanding of all of that is really important. I will definitely want to travel around the state and make myself known to the different fire departments and be active. I want to be able to take part in trainings and ride shifts and be immersed in as much as possible. That's also the best way for me to find out what our firefighters' concerns are so I can take that to the state and have that lead to some action that will help and support what they're dealing with. I'm honored and humbled to have been chosen to this position, and I'm very excited to get work with as many people as possible, because there is so much potential for what can be done throughout the state.”