A recent profile on longtime Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn offers a lot to ponder — not just about the history of the fire service, but where we are today and where we are heading.
Commissioner Quinn was, to say the least, an interesting mix of a man. He was a hero, an innovator, an athlete and a leader. He was also a closed-minded racist whose opposition to using SCBA probably shortened the lives of his firefighters.
Commissioner Quinn is probably most famous as the father of the snorkel. He got the idea in 1957 while watching tree trimmers use an elevated platform. He also was responsible for installing radios in fire vehicles.
He was a powerful advocate for physical fitness. Himself a champion athlete, in 1934 he jumped a 4-foot chasm from one building to another with a 200-pound woman on his shoulder — did I mention her clothes were on fire as well? Commissioner Quinn made his firefighters train as hard as he did, famously making them run marathons that shut down entire highways.
Yet his reluctance to adopt SCBA certainly did his firefighters no favors. Likewise, his reluctance to accept non-whites or women into the ranks did the fire department no favors.
It is tempting to come down on one side when looking at a polarizing character like Commissioner Quinn. But it is far better to step back and learn from both his accomplishments and failings.
His commitment, determination and creativity are characteristics we should all aspire to have more of in our lives and departments. These are the things that move the ball down the field, closer to the goal of safer and more effective firefighting.
Likewise, we need to guard against closed-minded thinking that bars people and devices from improving the fire service. Hiding behind tradition to mask our fear of change will be our downfall.
Commissioner Quinn retired in 1978 after leading the department for 21 years, just months shy of serving 50 years on the department. He died in 1979 at age 74.
It would be interesting to see what type of fire service leader Commissioner Quinn would be today. As fun as that exercise in speculation is, the reality of his powerful legacy can continue to improve the fire service, warts and all — and for that, I'm especially grateful.