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Tributes pour in for Chief Ronny Coleman, ‘Ben Franklin of the modern fire service’

Fire service leaders reflect on the life and legacy of the former California state fire marshal, visonary leader and friend to many

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By FireRescue1 Staff

“There is not a firefighter in North America that has not been touched by the selfless work of Ronny Coleman.”

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Chief Ronny J. Coleman

These words from Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder underscores the impact of fire service legend Chief Ronny Coleman, who passed away earlier this week.

Considered by many to be a fire service icon – even dubbed the “Ben Franklin of the modern fire service” – Chief Coleman’s career spanned 50-plus years, serving as California state fire marshal, deputy director of CAL FIRE, fire chief for multiple cities, among other impactful leadership positions. Coleman had been at the forefront of many advances in firefighter leadership, safety, fire prevention, code enforcement, training, and technical innovation. And in 1999, he was selected as one of the “20 Most Influential Fire Service Leaders of the 20th Century” by Fire Chief magazine.

Following the news of Coleman’s death, fire service leaders shared their memories and reflections on the life of this fire service icon. Many took to social media to share their feelings as well. (Note: Please email editor@firerescue1.com to share your thoughts on the life and legacy of Chief Ronny Coleman.)

Billy Goldfeder, deputy chief, Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) FD; Lexipol senior fire advisor

I met Ronny in 1982 in California when he was involved in promoting smoke alarms, and the start of residential fire sprinklers, and what was known as “The Bondi story.”

From my perspective after meeting him, it was love at first sight. This was the kindest, most enthusiastic fire chief I had met in my career. From that point on, we maintained a friendship to the point where he was working on recruiting me to become a fire chief in California, but due to family reasons, I was unable to accept the position.

We always stayed friends, both personally and professionally, and I was honored to be appointed as one of the first commissioners on the original Commissioner Fire Accreditation International, for which he was chair – and that is still going strong today.

Among his many, many accomplishments was a video series called Making a Difference, which was basically one of the first A/V fire officer training programs that existed back in the day.

They’ll be much more to say about Ronny in the coming days, but I wanted to share with you the thought that there is not a firefighter in North America that has not been touched by the selfless work of Ronny Coleman.

Janet Wilmoth, former editorial director, Fire Chief magazine

Ronny Coleman was the Ben Franklin of the modern fire service. He was a prolific writer, and his column, Chief’s Clipboard, was the most read column in Fire Chief magazine.

Ronny was with Fire Chief when I started in 1986. I learned a lot from Ron’s quest to improve the fire service and its leadership. Chief’s Clipboard was popular not only because of its leadership and common-sense lessons for fire chiefs and aspiring chiefs, but also because it encouraged them to look at the bigger picture of emergency services.

I was fortunate to be a part of a small think tank that Ron started that was based on Ben Franklin’s Junto group. Every time I talked with Ron, I came away with a new perspective.

In later years, Ronny loved to dress up like Ben Franklin and impart Franklin’s wisdom and wit.

Ron Coleman was unique. A wealth of modern and historical information, one of my long-time favorite chiefs, will be missed by many.

Randy Bruegman, president and founder, The Leadership Crucible Foundation; fire chief (ret.)

I first met Ron in 1985 when I approached him at a conference where he was speaking, and inquired about doing a video series on leadership. I was a company officer, and he was a well regarded fire chief. I thought it was a long shot that he would even engage with me, but he did, we made the series and developed a lifelong friendship.

Ron changed the trajectory of my life, as he introduced me to the IAFC, got me engaged with accreditation, and opened many doors that helped me professionally – and he was my mentor. Our lives have been intertwined for over 35 years. But I was one of thousands that he did that for.

If I learned anything from Ron, it was don’t get so wrapped up in yourself that you forget to give back to others.

Ron’s influence and strategic vison for our profession has helped to shape what the fire and emergency services is today. I always told him he was the Ben Franklin of the 20th century. Above all, he was my friend and the older brother I never had.

Susan and I have been blessed to be part of Ron and Marie’s life, and we will miss Ron very much.

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Top left: Coleman (left) with Bruegman (second from right) when the latter was sworn in as chief in Fresno, California. Bottom left: The Fire-Rescue International Daily News story shows Coleman and Bruegman during the opening session of the conference. Right: IAFC past president Lamont Ewell (left), Coleman and Bruegman attending the Howard Rayon Award dinner in 2022.

Garry Briese, executive director, Colorado State Fire Chiefs

I’ve had the privilege to have known, worked with, learned from and have been friends with Ron and Marie Coleman since 1984. Ron made an indelible impact on my life, career and family with his gentle coaching and friendship.

His contributions to the strategic development and future of both the U.S. and international fire service are too many and too significant to list here. Suffice it to say, today’s and tomorrow’s fire service have been forever changed and improved as a result of Ron’s future-oriented thoughts, creativity, vision, writings, presentations and mentoring.

This quote from Nelson Mandela may have been written for my friend Ron Coleman: “A leader … is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

There are many titles and descriptions that people will apply to Ron, but I think “friend and shepherd to those he met” are the most meaningful to me.

Gordon Graham, Lexipol co-founder; risk management expert

It was in the early 90s when I was scheduled to attend a hazmat conference at the Asilomar Conference Center near Monterey, California. The local airport got fogged in all too often, so I arrived in the early afternoon, missing the opening ceremonies and the keynote speaker, Chief Coleman. I had never met the man – had no clue who he was – but I dutifully listened to the afternoon presenters as they shared their programs related to hazardous materials.

The program wrapped up, and I spent some time talking to other law enforcement people and was headed to my Hertz in the parking lot and I struck up a conversation with an older man in the parking lot. We chatted for about 30 minutes about the CHP and all the goings on, and he asked me “so what are you reading right now?” Back then I was not reading a lot. Between running my law practice and working for the CHP and doing some speaking, I was “too busy” to read – and I may have said that to him.

A week later I received a book in the mail from the Office of the State Fire Marshal, addressed to me personally, from Chief Coleman. I then figured out who the fellow in the parking lot was. Think that through for a minute – a brief conversation in a parking lot led to the fire marshal from California – an appointee of Governor Pete Wilson – taking the time to send a nobody CHP sergeant a book and a personal note.

The next time we met – again at a conference – he came up to me and asked me if I enjoyed the book, and we had another conversation that ultimately led to a friendship over a period of three decades.

Coleman was heavily involved with the International Public Safety Leadership and Ethics Institute (IPSLEI), donated generously to that great organization, and was always available for a phone call for advice – and he remained “up to date” for all the years I knew him. I learned quite a bit from him. He did so much for so many for so long. He has left one heck of “a dash” (check out the poem by Linda Ellis), and I was honored to know him.

Marc Bashoor, executive editor, FireRescue1

As we enter the fire service, many within our ranks are content to ride the backstep and pull hoselines or vent roofs for their entire career. Others become the company officers and chief officers; many teach; and a FEW become icons. Chief Ronny Coleman was one of those few, once voted by Fire Chief magazine as one of the 20 most influential fire service leaders of the 21st century. Chief Coleman’s loss leaves a significant void, which will be difficult to replace.

Robert L. Ridgeway, Fire Chief (Ret.)

The older members of the Gastonia Fire Department, where I was serving as fire chief at the time, will remember that Chief Coleman served as the Keynote Speaker for our 100th Anniversary Banquet, held at old Fire Station #1 in October 2001. He flew in from California for the event, even though it was only a few weeks after 9/11, and said at the time that he wouldn’t miss it for the world. That night, as he sat on the back step of a fire engine, surrounded by a group of firefighters, just talking and telling stories, he was truly in his element. And he wouldn’t take a nickel for being our keynote speaker; he said that he was pleased to be able to be there to break bread with us and help us honor our heritage, and that was enough. That was the kind of man that Ronny Coleman was. If there was ever a man who deserved the title of “America’s Fire Chief,” it was Ronny Coleman.

Ron was a true leader and innovator in the fire service, and a friend and mentor to an entire generation of firefighters and fire chiefs. His contributions to the profession had a positive effect not only on those of us who knew him personally, but on countless civilians, who ultimately received the benefit in the fire of improved fire and life safety regulations and through the installation of residential sprinkler systems.

Social media tributes

Many took to social media to share their memories of Chief Coleman.

https://twitter.com/CALFIRE_CHIEF/status/1705239333941436897 https://twitter.com/FireChiefT/status/1705027801945141714 https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=3663161800673320&set=a.1776882715967914

Additional honors

In 2022, FireRescue1 asked board members and readers alike to name the most influential fire service leaders of all time. Chief Robert Rielage named Chief Coleman. Here’s what he had to say about the chief:

While many have tried, there may only have been a handful that equal his achievements. He is a leader, organizer, innovator, mentor and friend. I first met Chief Coleman when he was president of the IAFC. I had followed his monthly “Chief’s Clipboard” column, but having time to talk with him brought out his genuine interest in the topics that we discussed. Later Chief Coleman helped found the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch, and contributed his guidance in helping the IFE exchange ideas and procedures with fire service colleagues from Europe and around the globe. During his tenure as fire marshal for the State of California, Ron found ways to continually improve his organization. And during my time as Ohio’s fire marshal, I was able to institute several improvements similar to those Ronny had made in California. Ron’s wisdom and spirit have stayed with me throughout my career, and I owe a lot to his teachings as both a mentor and friend.

Email editor@firerescue1.com to share your memories and reflections on the life and legacy of Chief Ronny Coleman.

Learn more about Chief Coleman

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