In an emotional ceremony on Friday, Oct. 14, Fire Chief Gerard "Jerry" Forte officially retired and signed off for the last time. Fire Chief Kyle Berryhill has taken over command.
The Transfer of Power Ceremony was held at the Palm Coast Community Center. The room was almost completely filled, and many had tears to shed.
In his farewell remarks, Forte thanked his mother and wife for standing beside him, his brother, for being the reason he even became a firefighter, and all of his brothers and sisters in the Palm Coast Fire Department.
"To you all, if you do not think you had a profound effect on anyone, you did for me," Forte said. "It has been a profound honor."
“After 32 years, it is time for a new generation of leaders to create the next era of public safety with talented people ready to move forward.” — Fire Chief Gerard "Jerry" Forte at the Transfer of Power Ceremony Firday, Oct. 14.
Forte has served the city for 32 years. He started his career in 1990 as a volunteer firefighter at the encouragement of his brother, then a firefighter in Holly Hill. He worked his way up the ranks.
Forte became a full-time firefighter under the mentorship of Chief Norman Lewis, according to a press release from the city of Palm Coast. Among his many accolades, Forte earned his Fire Instructor Certification in 1996, "in which he trained and mentored firefighters throughout the region for many years," the press release said.
Forte was promoted to lieutenant in 1997, captain in 2000, deputy fire chief in 2009, and fire chief in 2018, leading the city through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, hurricanes and numerous emergency responses.
“After 32 years," Forte said, "it is time for a new generation of leaders to create the next era of public safety with talented people ready to move forward.”
Forte has been training then-Battalion Chief Berryhill to replace him since June, though Berryhill served as interim fire chief in 2021 while Forte was serving as interim assistant city manager.
Berryhill has served in the fired department since 2005, and rapidly worked up the ranks since. He became a lieutenant in 2011, Captain in 2017 and to Battalion Chief in 2019, according to a press release from the city of Palm Coast.
To his successor, Forte had a few words of advice.
"One of the most difficult things you will find in this position is asking one of your people to step into harms way," Forte said.
Nothing will prepare you for that, he said. He also told Berryhill to be comfortable being alone — it's necessary, he said, to be able to focus your thoughts and make the important decisions.
"Those chiefs who have preceded you will be forgotten over time," Forte said. "Those chiefs who follow after you will be inspired by you."
Vice Mayor Eddie Branquinho told Forte and the crowd that reason Forte was so successful as chief was because of that family-first mentality. He ran the department like a family, Branquinho said. Not like a family business.
"There's no such thing as a perfect person for a chief," Branquinho said, choked up. "But you are as close as it gets in my eyes."
One person right after the other took to the podium to share the special memories and moments between the retired chief and themselves. Listening to the stories, well-wishes and tearful goodbyes, the room felt more like a family gathering than an official ceremony.
"I hope I leave it better than I found it," Forte said.
PCFD Lt. Patrick Juliano presented Forte with the department's ceremonial ax and a United States flag that had flown over the nation's capital.
"You've led our city through the most trying times," Juliano said.
Eventually, after all the awards had been gifted, Berryhill swore his oath of service as Fire Chief and retired Fire Chief Forte signed off of his call sign one last time.
Moments later, Fire Chief Kyle Berryhill signed on.
In his first speech as chief, Berryhill laughingly warned the crowd that he cries so much, his best friend called it "Kyle-ing."
He gave his speech, "Kyle-ing" alongside Branquinho and Forte throughout. To his new command, he said he would always be proud of his fire-family, as he always has been.
"Together we saw and did things that seemed like miracles to me, after the fact," Berryhill said. "But that's just what Palm Coast Firefighters do."
In his first act as chief, Berryhill presented Forte his retired badge.
"We're all pretty grateful you said 'I'll go, send me,'" Berryhill said to Forte.
Berryhill said his fire-family has always inspired him. They truly encompass the department's core values, Berryhill said — family, integrity and loyalty; they're always striving to make "tomorrow's best better than today's."
After his remarks, Chief Berryhill presented 17 firefighters their badges for promotion, one of which was the retired chief's son, Anthony Forte. Anthony Forte had his young son and father pin on his Firefighter-Paramedic badge.
"I don't think I'll ever feel more proud and honored," Berryhill said to his fire-family. "I'm always proud of you and I'll strive to give you my best every time."