By Theodore Decker
The Columbus Dispatch
COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was an unsettling time to take the helm of a major metropolitan fire department.
When Ned Pettus Jr. became chief of the Columbus Division of Fire six months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, he joined chiefs in other big cities in wondering: What would we do?
"That was looming so large across the country and around the world," Pettus said. "No major city in America was adequately prepared for terrorists.
"Many nights, it kept me awake, the possibilities."
Ten years later, Pettus, 60, is leaving a changed Fire Division. After completing two five-year terms, he is retiring today.
A committee is screening seven applicants from within the division to replace him, a task expected to take several weeks.
His 35-year career began after a nurse at Ohio State University Medical Center suggested to Pettus, then a young orderly, that he consider a career in firefighting. He went on to become the city's first black fire chief.
In his retirement letter to Mayor Michael B. Coleman, Pettus called Columbus and the Fire Division "a tremendous blessing" to him and his family.
Safety Director Mitchell J. Brown said Pettus deserves thanks for his commitment and dedication to the division and the city's residents. "He has been an outstanding fire chief for the past decade," Brown said.
Mark W. Light, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, called Pettus an innovative leader who has kept his department on the cutting edge.
Pettus has led the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association, an IAFC section that represents big-city chiefs, and was named its "chief of the year" in 2009.
"He is a very well-respected fire chief," Light said.
Pettus joined the Fire Division in 1977 after trying his hand at insurance and real estate. His decision eventually lured an older brother away from social work and into firefighting.
"I called him all excited that I loved the job, I had found my niche, and that I also made more money than he did," Pettus said, laughing.
His brother has since retired, but Pettus' son, Ned Jamar Pettus, followed in his father's footsteps as a city firefighter.
"He doesn't have a memory that's not somehow linked to the fire department," Pettus said.
Pettus started his career at Station 19 in Clintonville and quickly learned that "there was absolutely no comparison to driving a (Volkswagen) Super Beetle and a Seagrave fire engine."
Within 20 years, he had reached the rank of deputy chief.
As chief, he oversaw the openings of replacement stations in Linden and Franklinton and the construction of a $9 million training complex on Parsons Avenue.
Under his watch, the division was granted international accreditation in 2007; at the time, it was the second-largest department in the country to be accredited.
"This hallmark of excellence that we have achieved is the same one that is pursued by fire departments around the world," Pettus said. "It raises the level of professionalism for the entire fire service."
In those early days after Sept. 11, Pettus said, he tried to focus on the division's strengths and ensure they grew even stronger. The bomb squad, already recognized as a quality unit, was bolstered. The same went for the hazardous-materials team and the paramedic squads.
The terrorist attack, he said, drove home the need for a sense of cooperation among the spectrum of public-safety agencies. "Prior to 9/11, our various agencies pretty much worked in silos, and what needed to take place was the exact opposite," he said.
In a profession where getting rusty might mean getting killed, the need for training is constant, Pettus said. Ever-changing technology must be tapped.
And diversity in the ranks, sorely lacking when Pettus joined the division in 1977, should remain a priority, he said.
Pettus joined two years after U.S. District Judge Joseph P. Kinneary ruled that discrimination existed in the department, where just 19 of 821 firefighters, or 2.3 percent, were black.
The judge ordered the city to hire one black firefighter for every white firefighter to raise those numbers. Pettus was part of the second class of recruits to be hired under the court order. His class of nine blacks and eight whites trained for 12 weeks and graduated in April 1977.
According to the Department of Public Safety, the division had 166 black firefighters at the end of last year, or 11 percent of 1,559. Only 39 were women, 2.5 percent.
Jack Reall, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 67, said Pettus earned a reputation as a leader willing to work with the union. Pettus set the tone early when he and Reall traveled to Phoenix to see why that city's relationship with its firefighters' union worked so well.
"For the most part, regardless of whether we've disagreed on issues or had conflicts on things, we've done it in what I think is a professional, educational and productive manner on both sides," Reall said.
"He has been a chief that we are able to communicate with when needed but (who) also kind of gives us our space."
In the short term, Pettus plans to vacation in Florida with his wife. He is working toward a doctorate in human and organizational development.
Beyond that, he isn't sure what retirement will hold.
"I'm not ready for the rocking chair," he said.
Hank Kauffman, who was a longtime fire chief in Grandview Heights and is chief of the state fire marshal's fire prevention bureau, was in the same fire-academy class as Pettus.
"I knew Ned was a smart guy, and I figured he'd do well," Kauffman said. "He always did what he thought was right rather than what was popular.
"He's a stand-up guy. Always has been."
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