Chief Warren McDaniels
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2008
Warren McDaniels, chair of the NFPA Board of Directors since 2006, died on February 24, 2008. I was honored to deliver the following eulogy at his funeral:
It is fitting, at this final hour, that we come together in this building to say goodbye to Warren McDaniels, a great public servant. This building was for over 100 years the City Hall of the city he loved. New Orleans is where his heart was. It is here that he and Betty raised their family. And it is here that he served, for more than three decades, with honor and distinction in the fire department. Like New Orleans, Warren McDaniels struggled courageously to overcome unimaginable adversity, and, like New Orleans, he never gave up.
Warren McDaniels lived a life of service. As a very young man, he served his country in the United States Navy. He began his service to the City of New Orleans almost 40 years ago when he joined the fire department. He didn’t have a great deal of formal education when he became a firefighter. But he did have a dedication to helping others, and a belief that through his public service he could not only advance himself but make his community better.
It is typical of Warren that when he gave the Chairman’s Address at our annual meeting in Boston last June, he did not brag about all that he had done during his illustrious career. Instead, he stood before that crowd of several thousand people and said, "The fire service was my salvation." He was grateful for what the fire service had done for him.
Warren could have bragged because during his career he had accomplished so much. He had broken down doors when he rushed into burning buildings as a young firefighter to rescue people and broken down other doors that created opportunities for those who followed him.
He was the first African-American in many of the ranks of the New Orleans Fire Department, and he became the first African-American Superintendent of the department in 1993. He became the chair of the Metro Fire Chiefs, the national organization made up of chiefs from all of the large cities. They chose Warren to be their leader. He served on the board of the National Association of Black Firefighters. And at the time of his death, he was still the chairman of the Board of the organization that I represent, the National Fire Protection Association.
Warren moved into the leadership ranks of the NFPA Board just as his health problems arrived. And the trials and tribulations that he faced got worse as he got closer to becoming chairman. We wondered how he was going to be able to do it. But Warren never wavered in fulfilling his responsibility, even as he struggled with illness and even as he struggled with Katrina and its aftermath. He faced it all with dignity, grace, and good humor and continued until the end to do the job brilliantly. And he never lost hope for himself or for his city.
None of us who were in attendance when Chief Warren McDaniels gave that speech at the NFPA meeting just nine months ago will ever forget it. He spoke not about his own problems but about the tremendous difficulties people in New Orleans had faced since Hurricane Katrina, and he spoke with such pride about the job that his beloved New Orleans Fire Department had done to save people’s lives and to help keep this city alive.
He did not complain about his own difficulty evacuating the city with Betty or about the fact that he lost his own home and almost all of his possessions. But he told us that his own experience facing that disaster had allowed him to understand in a completely different way how important the work of the fire department and other emergency responders is to the people that they serve.
I was standing with Warren when he finished that speech. People were surrounding him and congratulating him unlike I have ever seen at one of our meetings. I will never forget one woman, in particular. She approached Warren and said, "That was a wonderful speech, Chief! It was one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard! You should go out and give that speech all across America because you are so inspirational." She paused and added, "And you are so handsome." Warren’s face broke into a big grin, and you could just see the pride that he felt, not just at what he had accomplished in giving that speech, but the pride he felt in representing the city of New Orleans and his fire department and the profession he loved.
In the Old Testament, Isaiah says, "Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me.’"
Send me. Those are the words of the prophet Isaiah. But they are also the words that best describe the life of a man who loved his family and his city and his brothers and sisters in the fire service, who served his fellow citizens with everything he had to give: our dear friend, Chief Warren McDaniels.