'Living legend': Conn. volunteer celebrates 5 decades teaching fire safety

Ron Carlson began volunteering for the Suffield Fire Department in 1971, focusing on fire safety and prevention for kids


Matthew Knox
Journal Inquirer, Manchester, Conn.

SUFFIELD, Conn. — Following his graduation from Springfield College in 1970, Ron Carlson intended to become a physical education teacher. He never made it into the gymnasium, but he's been a teacher throughout his life, in an unexpected role.

Carlson, 73, has taught fire safety and prevention to thousands of Suffield school children since he began volunteering for the Suffield Fire Department in 1971. He celebrated his 50-year milestone on Sept. 13.

"Now that I look back, that's a long time. But I would do it again if I had the opportunity," Carlson said recently. "After I got going with it, why would I stop?"

"He's truly a living legend in the Connecticut fire service," said his friend, Suffield fire Capt. Lew Cannon. Anytime Carlson attends a fire-related conference, he'll run into someone he's met over the past 50 years, Cannon said.

A lot has changed since Carlson first volunteered. He's witnessed many new safety regulations, the introduction of EMTs into fire service, new techniques for dealing with hazardous materials, and changes following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The town's Fire Commission recognizes Carlson's dedication to the department and town, Chairman Paul Christian said recently. "It's good to have people like Ron," he said.

Carlson's start with the department began gradually. He grew up in Newington and moved to Suffield while still in college. He made friends in the Fire Department, and occasionally he'd help out with events, such as the fireman's carnival, he said.

In the spring of 1971 he applied for a volunteer position. "Back then, you had to wait to get on. Now you can't get volunteers," Carlson said.

In the meantime he turned to carpentry for work. He was in the wrong place, at the wrong time to teach PE, it turned out. All the teachers were needed on the West Coast at that time, and Carlson wasn't prepared to move.

His teaching skills didn't lay dormant for long though.

Within a few years Carlson began a 38-year career at Hamilton Standard, working his way up through the ranks from firefighter to lieutenant, captain, and finally assistant chief, with the role of training officer.

"In essence what I was able to do was take my education and use it, not towards school, but towards training, and it worked well. I loved that job," Carlson said.

Around the same time Carlson began taking on education responsibilities in Suffield, and he ended up in the schools after all, teaching children the basics of fire safety and prevention. One of the programs was known as EDITH, or Exit Drills In The Home.

Even without the distraction of cellphones, it was still a struggle getting the kids to pay attention, he said.

"We realized there was a problem. We weren't getting through to them," Carlson said.

One day Carlson got together with another member and his wife for a brain storming session. The resulting idea — create a mascot for the program, a woman named Edith, played by a costumed Carlson.

Carlson balked at first. "But by the time we got done with that meeting in the center firehouse, we walked across to the thrift shop, which was right across the street at that time. They actually gave us what we needed, and I became Edith," Carlson said.

The costume has changed a bit over the years, and these days has a flowered hat, bushy hair, sweater, jumper, and sneakers with knee-high socks, all complimented by a high-pitched voice that Carlson adopts during demonstrations.

"To this day, kids don't know, is that really a woman?" Carlson said.

When teaching, Carlson is always fully prepared, and "has a great ability to put things in easily understood terms, Cannon said.

Carlson has a vast knowledge of the fire industry, but he's humble, Cannon said. He also has a great sense of humor, and tends to give credit to others, Cannon added.

It's been estimated that Carlson has given approximately 10,000 hours of his time to the department.

"He's a true volunteer in every sense of the word," said Cannon.

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(c)2021 Journal Inquirer, Manchester, Conn.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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