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A new list of fire service legends begins. Will you be on it?

Eight leadership-focused questions can help test your legacy potential



Chief Ron Coleman was the last living fire service legend of the 20th century. It was my privilege to know him and 10 other members of that group of leaders. [Read: Tributes pour in for Chief Ronny Coleman, ‘Ben Franklin of the modern fire service.]

In 2000, Fire Chief magazine created this list of 20th century legends:

  • J. Ray Pence
  • Ralph Scott
  • Lloyd Layman
  • Fred Sheppard
  • Robert Gain
  • Percy Bugbee
  • James Meidl
  • Warren Isman
  • William Clark
  • Gordon Vickery
  • Keith Klinger
  • David Gratz
  • Howie McClennan
  • Warren Kimball
  • Lou Witzemen
  • John Bryan
  • Francis Brannigan
  • James Page
  • Alan Brunacini
  • Ronny Coleman

I reviewed their work and presented my findings at a National Fire Academy EFO graduate symposium. Then in 2002, I published an article about how to test your legacy potential. Although the questions are now over 20 years old, the concepts related to gauging your potential to shape the future are still applicable today. For myself and my cohorts, our potential is mostly fixed by now. But for newer members, you still have time to shape your future and make a difference in our 21st century fire culture. Who will be on the list published in 2083?


By studying those who came before us, we honor the past, we celebrate the present because of how far we have come, and we can believe in the future because of the legacies we are creating.

Test your legacy potential (2002)

All of us have benefited from the work of the 20 fire service legends listed above. By examining their careers, we may be able to identify common characteristics among them that helped them make such significant advances in the fire service. Further, this information can be useful in our own professional development, allowing us to create organizational environments that help others contribute to their highest potential. By studying those who came before us, we honor the past, we celebrate the present because of how far we have come, and we can believe in the future because of the legacies we are creating.

Now, ask yourself these questions to measure your legacy quotient:

  1. Are you the fire chief of your organization?
  2. How many years in the fire service do you have?
  3. How many times have you been published?
  4. What is your highest academic degree?
  5. What subject area are you considered an expert in?
  6. What major change did you champion?
  7. How many times have you lectured to a national audience?
  8. Do you plan to work beyond the year 2050?

By using the careers of our 20th-century legends as a baseline, we can get an idea of what we need to do to leave our legacies to the 21st-century fire service.

1. Are you a fire chief? Thirteen of the 20 legends were fire chiefs during their careers. There are several reasons why being fire chief is important to your legacy.

  • A fire chief is in a critical leadership position with significant power. Whether or not you use the position effectively is largely up to you.
  • As chief, you have organizational mass to use. It’s difficult to be an artist if you don’t have material to work with.
  • Your organization can be a laboratory environment or a studio in which to practice your art and science.
  • As chief, you have the opportunity for success as an individual and, more importantly, through your organization.
  • Being the chief puts all eyes on you. Everyone knows if you win, lose or draw.

If you’re the fire chief, give yourself 10 points on the legacy scale. If you’re not chief, you get 5 points because seven of the legends were successful without five bugles. Remember, all of us can be the chief of our own destiny.

2. How many years of service do you have? Our 20 legends have an average of 34 years of service. There’s a correlation between legacy and longevity: The longer you’re around, the more time you have to get it right. Also, there’s a natural connection between years of service and respect, but keep in mind that respect is a two-way street. If senior people forget this, they can be infected with “dinosauritis,” and the only vaccine is wisdom.

There’s not one set way to acquire wisdom, but all 20 legends had lots of it. You get 10 points if you have 34 or more years of service and 5 points if you have less than 34 years. If you’re a dinosaur, you get zero points.

3. How many times have you been published? Astonishingly, our legends were each published an average of 58 times. I use the word astonishing because as a discipline we’re not prone to writing and being published. This group of people led the literature of the 20th-century fire service and helped prove the pen versus sword concept. For example, if you do great work or learn an important lesson in a near-fatal experience but don’t write about it, your new knowledge is lost to everyone but you. Writing forces you to clarify ideas because until an idea is put on paper, it has no substance. Being published communicates your ideas to large numbers of people regardless of geography or time.

Finally, writing and publishing put your ideas up for critical review. Those who read it can accept, reject, ignore or build on your work. All of us are building on the work of these 20 individuals today.

You earn 10 points if you have been published 58 or more times, 8 points for 30 or more, 6 points for 20 or more, and 4 points for the rest of us because we have all written something – a desk journal, a fire or EMS report, or an accident report. Writing is so important that you can’t be a professional without doing it.

[Read next: FireRescue1 article guidelines for authors]

4. How much education do you have? Twelve of our legends held academic degrees, two at the doctoral level. Fire service degrees weren’t available to most of our legends. They learned a doctrine that they applied to the fire service.

An academic degree gives you intellectual scope. All of those liberal arts courses you were required to take exercised your mind and built brain muscle. College serves as a place for idea incubation: All you learn stays with you, even if only in the unconscious mind. An academic degree gives you professional credentials in the fire service and society in general. You get 2 points for earning an associate degree, 5 points for a bachelor’s degree, 9 points for a master’s, and 10 for a doctorate.

5. Are you an expert? All of our legends can be classified as experts because the rest of us look to them for guidance. Expert power is influential and not dependent on age, rank or organization size. If you’re the leading or only expert in your field, people will beat a path to your door. Being an expert gives you leadership opportunity because you can demonstrate your knowledge, skills and abilities far beyond the topic at hand. In this position, you cultivate followers, not because you’re the boss, but because you can help.

If you can identify what you’re an expert in, give yourself 10 points. Now go ask three other people what they think you’re an expert in. If all four of you agree, you get 20 points.

6. What major change have you championed? All of our legends were paradigm pioneers. They took new ideas and made them work. The rest of us adopted their new ways, and they became the norm. We all do our job differently today because of the vision these men had.

I can’t score this question for you because there’s no set way to become a leader of fire-service change. Becoming a paradigm pioneer is the result of a passion for what you do and a belief in continual improvement. Only you can score your passion and belief. All twenty legends had a lot of both throughout their careers. So, give yourself a score from 1-10.

7. How many national lectures have you delivered? All of our legends were world-class public speakers. From the beginning of time, those who capture our attention when they speak give us a vision of the future, inspire us with their passion, and motivate us to action with their rhetoric. The content of the message is important, but your ability to deliver it is critical – you can’t light a fire with a wet match. Public speaking is a very powerful tool, but it’s also the top fear in adults. To get over your butterflies, take a public speaking course or join Toastmasters.

Give yourself 10 points if you have lectured to national audiences 21 or more times, 8 points for 12 or more times, 5 points for six or more, and 2 points for one or more. You get one point even if you have never spoken in front of an audience, because all of us have talked at the kitchen table and some of our greatest debates take place there. We need to move these discussions to center stage.

8. Do you plan to work beyond 2050? Sixteen of our legends did their most significant work after 1950. The people who work at the beginning of a new century have a more difficult time of being remembered at the end of the century.

We must write our history because many of our 21st-century fire-service legends have not yet been born. Our work must give them a sound foundation to build on.

Give yourself 10 points if you plan to work beyond 2050. The rest of us get 5 points and have to work harder.

Adding it all up

Now add up your score. What does it mean? Only you can determine how much you will invest in the future, and only your posterity will determine the value of your legacy. Legacies begin in recruit school. Your job as chief is to create an environment to release the human potential.

What can you do to grow legacies? Let others be in charge because leadership is found throughout the organization. Thinking in the long term will help others and the organization keep looking to the future even in the most difficult of times.

Encourage people to get published; having a byline is a great incentive to write. Get an advanced degree and encourage entry-level personnel to get them as well. Expect everyone to be an expert on something because we need it and it’s good for the individual.

Once each person achieves expert status, look for the paradigm pioneers. These are usually individuals who keep trying to make things better. They may be the ones who drive you crazy and push your buttons because they don’t take no for an answer. Learn to cherish them.

Finally, give others the opportunity to tell their story to an audience. Let a rookie give a talk at the next senior staff meeting or invite a captain to speak at the county chief meeting.

Let us thank the 20 legends of the past century for getting us to where we are today. We promise to be good stewards and contribute to the legacy by investing in the future.

Dr. Burton A. Clark, EFO, has been in the fire service for 49 years. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Fire Service Psychology Association and the Board of Governors for the John M. Moschella Fire Service Research Grant Trust. Dr. Clark is a technical expert reviewer for the NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention program and a dissertation advisor at various universities. He is the author of “I Can’t Save You And I Don’t Want To Die Trying: American Fire Culture.”

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