Without ever opening one of the many thick, black books in his reference library, Kevin Leach can tell you that NFPA13 is the standard on sprinkler systems. He knows that NFPA72 explains how to put in a fire alarm system. As University of Oklahoma fire marshal, such knowledge is his job.
A Fort Worth, Texas native, Leach has been a Norman resident for 30 years. He wasn’t “one of those kids who always wanted to be a firefighter,” but when he heard that the City of Norman Fire Department was hiring, at age 19 he drove north to begin his career in fire safety. After working his way through several promotional exams, he became a fire inspector and investigator focusing on code enforcement, public education and fire investigation. After nearly 18 years in the position, he retired in September 2005.
As planned retirement approached, Leach decided to return to school to finish a bachelor’s degree and discovered that the OU College of Liberal Studies (CLS) was the best fit for him. “You’re working with people, working with multiple cultures, working with natural sciences, and trying to understand how people perceive things based on their culture,” he said of the Bachelor of Liberal Studies degree. “What other degree program would be better suited for all of those areas? I don’t think there’s another degree that would have better prepared me.”
Stoking the Fire
Leach attributes his CLS degree with broadening his perspective on working with people who have different views. “Learning to work with different groups of people, cultures, that’s something I have to do at this job,” he said. “The program changed my view to where I could see things from a different perspective and understand why other people viewed things differently, based on their culture and their environment.”
“You’re working with people, working with multiple cultures, working with natural sciences, and trying to understand how people perceive things based on their culture,” he said of the Bachelor of Liberal Studies degree. “What other degree program would be better suited for all of those areas? I don’t think there’s another degree that would have better prepared me.”
A husband and a father of three, Leach said one of the hardest things about the program was balancing school with work and family. “One surprise, when I look back now, was that I finished it, that I was able to do it — work a full-time job, raise a family, and find time to do the work, and do it on time,” he said. “Probably the hardest thing about an independent study program, if you have a family, is saying, ‘I have to have this time and can’t be disrupted.’ Part of the selling point for me wanting to do a degree here was being able to fit school in with work and family, and that’s why that program worked really well.”
A May 2005 graduate, Leach not only graduated with distinction, but also served as the CLS banner carrier during graduation ceremonies. “That was quite an honor,” he said.
On Oct. 3, Leach became the university’s fire marshal, and so far, he loves the job. “I never do the same thing every day,” he said. “It is diversified, and I like it because I never get bored. There’s always a challenge.”
Some of Leach’s duties include planning and reviewing for new construction and remodeled buildings, code enforcement, education and investigation.
Although he describes his job as multifaceted, “It all comes down to fire and life safety,” he said.
“We’re going to have fires here on campus, that’s inevitable,” he continued. “With any city, any organization’s going to have them. In the wrong situation, putting the right two things together can start a fire.
“Sometimes people have all the information and they choose to ignore it. But regardless of that, we are going to keep preaching the same message and keep doing the same thing over and over because that’s what we do.”
In the spirit of lifelong learning, Leach said he will continue to attend training sessions for the rest of his career. “There is a lot to read and stay up on,” he said. “As far as training goes, you are never at a point where you can say, ‘Oh, I know it all.’ You constantly have to learn and stay on top of things, and you need to refresh every once in a while.”
Meanwhile, those thick, black books filled with safety standards will continue to multiply on his shelves, providing him with plenty of learning material. “I plan on being here for a long time,” he said. “I’ll be here until they run me out.”
Update: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017.