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Pittsburgh firefighter, academy instructor dies of complications from COVID-19

Capt. James “Jim” Ellis was a “‘firefighter’s firefighter,’ a devoted family man, and the consummate professional,” said Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire Chief Darryl Jones


Photo/Pittsburgh Fire Fighters

Janice Crompton
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh firefighter James “Jim” Ellis was a quiet, contemplative man whose bravery knew no bounds.

A 23-year veteran and captain with Pittsburgh Fire Station 32 in the Deutschtown section of the North Side, Capt. Ellis not only put his life on the line every day but also generously shared his encyclopedic knowledge of fighting fires as an instructor all over the country.

“Jim was the best firefighter I ever worked with and one of the best people I ever knew,” said longtime friend and colleague Ed Farley, a battalion chief with the Third District in the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire.

Also a master sergeant with the Air National Guard, Capt. Ellis, of Banksville, died July 13 of complications from COVID-19. He was 49.

Capt. Ellis grew up in Mars, graduating from Mars Area High School in 1991. As a boy, he dreamed of being a firefighter.

By 16, he had joined what is now the Adams Area Fire District as a junior firefighter. He would go on to serve as a vice president in the volunteer department.

In 1992, Capt. Ellis enlisted as a member of the Air National Guard.

“He joined the military right out of high school,” said longtime friend and colleague John Gardell, a captain with the Pittsburgh Fire Bureau No. 8 Truck in East Liberty. “He served as master sergeant and fire chief of the 171st Air Refueling Wing.”

His life changed in 1993, when Ellis met Cathy Kremer.

“We actually met when he took my blood pressure at a festival that the [ Adams Area Fire District] was having,” Mrs. Ellis said, laughing at the memory. “I was so embarrassed because he had to use the child’s arm cuff.”

The couple wed in April 1999 and have two sons, Brady, 16, and Ryan, 14.

Capt. Ellis went on to work at the Wilkinsburg Fire Department for three years before joining the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire in 1999.

As a firefighter and later as an instructor with the Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania fire academies, Capt. Ellis was well respected, Capt. Gardell said.

“Everyone he worked with or touched admired him,” he said. “He just had an incredible way of getting his point across. He was a phenomenal fire instructor at our Washington Boulevard fire academy, and he taught at the local and national level.”

Whether it was beginners or grizzled veterans whom he was instructing, Capt. Ellis’ humble nature shone through.

“He was unbelievable as a teacher,” Capt. Gardell said. “He could talk to a brand new recruit or someone with 30 years on the job and be able to reach them with his knowledge.”

“Jim was one of the best instructors I ever worked with,” Farley agreed. “He wouldn’t talk down to you, he would talk to you like a brother and teach you and make sure you knew what you were doing. He was one of a kind.”

Ellis was “a respected mentor and lifelong friend to many in the bureau,” said Darryl Jones, chief of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire.

“Jimmy Ellis was a ‘firefighter’s firefighter,’ a devoted family man, and the consummate professional. He was an asset not only to the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire, but to the American fire service, having trained firefighters both nationally and internationally,” Jones said in a statement. “He will be deeply missed. Rest with God captain, we will take it from here.”

His devotion to professional education and training was also an inspiration, Farley said.

“He would read, watch videos, listen to podcasts — every day, he would learn something new about the fire service,” Farley said.

The pair traveled across the U.S., teaching firefighters and public safety personnel for the past 17 years.

“We went everywhere from Austin, Texas, to San Diego, Calif., to Pensacola, Fla.,” Farley said. “His passion was unmatched. He was a Pennsylvania fire suppression expert, and we would also teach rapid intervention all over the country, which teaches how to rescue a firefighter if they get into trouble.”

The two became fast friends during the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, Farley recalled.

“We met when we were in a car driving to New York City for 9/11, where we worked for three days,” he said. “Since then, we’ve been best friends and instructors together, and he was my lieutenant for a time.”

Perhaps more than anything, though, Capt. Ellis should be remembered for his dedication to his family, Farley said.

“He was a great dad,” he said. “He was an example to them. Every night, he would tell them, ‘I love you,’ and ‘Be nice to people.’ I just left the funeral home, and I miss him already. Jimmy was so strong — I never wanted to think about this day. I thought he would get better.”

Along with his wife and children, Capt. Ellis is survived by his mother, Ruth Ellen Witkowski, and two sisters, Carol Taylor and Cyndie Kopie.

A Mass of Christian burial was planned for 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Bernard Church, 311 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon 15216.

In lieu of flowers, donations are suggested to the Brady and Ryan Ellis Education Fund or to the Central Blood Bank.


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