There will be a changing of the guard atop Miami’s fire department Wednesday when Deputy Chief Joseph Zahralban takes over for the retiring Maurice Kemp.
Zahralban, 45, was selected as the city’s new fire chief through a competitive internal process. He was Kemp’s preferred pick for the job, well-liked by the city’s fire union, and is a task force leader of the South Florida FEMA Urban Search and Rescue team.
Zahralban is a department lifer, hired in 1990 fresh out of high school at the age of 18. Most in the department know him as “Joe Z,” a moniker that stuck when other firefighters tired of trying to pronounce his last name.
“The fire department started to raise me where my parents left off,” said Zahralban. “By 19 I was driving a fire truck.”
That experience may come in handy. As chief, Zahralban will oversee a $125 million department of roughly 750 firefighters, more than a third of them hired in the past three years alone. He says leading the young department is his biggest challenge (the youth movement was cited by Kemp last year as a reason for staying on past his retirement date).
“In the last three or four years, we hired maybe 300 or 400 firefighters, which makes us younger than we’ve ever been,” said Kemp, who was grooming Zahralban as his replacement. “We’re in a good place. We’ve been pushing the training really hard.”
The department, which Kemp says handles more than 100,000 emergency calls a year, is also focused on expanding its fire stations into developing neighborhoods in order to improve response times as high-rise condos increase the city’s population and traffic congestion. In a costly real estate market, the city now looks to developers seeking special approvals to build new stations, such as the one planned at Brickell City Centre.
Zahralban officially takes over for Kemp Wednesday morning during a ceremony planned outside Marlins Park. His salary will jump to $201,245.82, the same pay that Kemp currently receives.
Kemp, the city’s first black fire chief, retires Friday at age 57 after 32 years with the department. The married father of four says he doesn’t have any set plans.
“I’m going to exhale, and enjoy the fact that for the first time in my adult life I won’t have a schedule to keep,” he said.