Top fire chiefs in history

These U.S. fire chiefs are top of the class for the profound and lasting mark they left on the fire service

This is the first in a series of articles where fire service historian Bruce Hensler looks at the great fire chiefs of modern times and what made them so great. 

As we examine the careers of those fire chiefs who have had the greatest influence on the modern fire service, it is important to understand the fire service leadership landscape and what is at stake.

Adherence to customs and beliefs is expressed as tradition and serves to shape culture and behavior in society and groups. Positive behavior is normalized and negative behavior is sanctioned. Corruption occurs when bad behavior is protected or tolerated.

When negative behavior in an organization becomes the norm, traditions may be perverted and used as a cover or excuse to hide behind. When leadership of a group is tainted in any way, the truth is twisted and transparency lost.

What do you do if you sense something is wrong? Do you go along to get along, giving in to peer pressure? Do you want to do the right thing, but are unsure of how to do it?

In times of crisis great leaders rise to the occasion. They lead by example. They use words and stories to convey lofty messages. They leave an impression of strength exhibited by moral character and courage.

We instinctively know great leaders from the horribly bad examples, as well as those lacking moral character and courage to do the right thing. Great leaders give us a version of the truth that we can believe because the facts are evident.

Public trust
Firefighters hold a position of public trust. When an organization, especially a fire or police department, is subsumed by scrutiny and controversy for acting questionably, it loses credibility and the trust of the public.

It is the duty of every member of the fire department, from rookie to chief, to act in ways that build and preserve public trust. If a fire department is better known for the bad actions of a few of its members, then it doesn't matter how good it is at saving lives or protecting property.

Officer classes teach that leadership is doing the right thing and management is doing things the right way. Truly great organizations, ones that do more than just thrive, have leaders and managers that do both the right thing and do it the right way. Such leaders and organizations are memorable and stand as case studies and examples.

It is certain that if you survive for any length of time in firefighting, you'll face difficult challenges, incomprehensible tragedies, untimely deaths and a few tough characters. Learning to handle this ensuing emotional and physical stress is part of being a firefighter.

This is the first in series on notable chief officers, specifically those chiefs who demonstrated strength of character, made a significant contribution to the fire service and most often did both.

I introduced the series by discussing truth, transparency and public trust because those measures of character have merit when seeking individuals truly qualified to be considered important, if not great. I also chose to confine my search to the late 20th century when America's urban fire departments were under fire, literally and figuratively.

The individuals I've selected have made some noteworthy contribution to the modern fire service. They will be presented in no particular order; they are in no way stack ranked.

Chief Dunn
Here is Vincent Dunn, deputy chief of the Fire Department of New York.

Born Vincent Joseph Dunn, May 12, 1935, in Queens, New York, Dunn was a firefighter in New York City for 42 years, rising in rank to commander of Division 3 covering Midtown Manhattan.

He authored four books on firefighting, most notably, "Collapse of Burning Buildings: A Guide to Fireground Safety" in 1992.

Chief Dunn is recognized as an expert on high-rise firefighting, rescue and building collapse. He served as a consultant to NIST in the federal government's investigation into the collapse on 9/11 of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers and 7 World Trade Center.

He has written that, "The best-kept secret in America's fire service is that firefighters cannot extinguish a fire in a 20 or 30 thousand square foot, open-floor area in a high-rise building. City managers and department chiefs will not admit this to the public if they want to keep their jobs. But every fireground commander knows this is a fact."

The difficulty of organized firefighting attacks on large-area, interior compartments was first noted in the late 1800s by Eyre Massey Shaw of the London Fire Brigade, as well as by John Damrell chief engineer and building inspector for Boston. Through Damrell's efforts the first model building codes limited compartmented area sizes.

The big one
Dunn learned firefighting by serving 25 years battling tenement fires, much of it in Brooklyn. On Oct. 17, 1966, as a rookie lieutenant, he responded with his company, Engine 33, to a multi-alarm building fire between 22nd and 23rd streets.

Approaching command, he reported to Chief Reilly. The chief ordered two more lines into the building, one was Dunn's company and the other was from Engine 18, led by Lt. Priore.

Dunn saw both Reilly and Priore walk into the smoky building. He never saw them again — nor the 10 other firefighters who were inside when the collapse occurred. Dunn escaped that fateful collapse and tried to bury the memory.

On Aug. 2, 1978, Dunn awoke to the news that six FDNY firefighters had just died in a fire and collapse at a Brooklyn supermarket. It was at that moment, he says, that he realized that he'd buried the terrible memory of the 1966 fire.

He reckoned that if he were going to honor the memory of those lost and to lead firefighters into buildings on fire, that he'd better understand the mechanisms of building collapse.

He was assigned to the Bronx at the time that he undertook eight years of study that would eventually give him the confidence that he felt he needed to make life-and-death decisions as an incident commander.

Dunn's work on building collapse and subsequent work on fireground safety have left an indelible mark on the modern fire service.

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