Metro Chiefs: The Early Days

by Russ Sanders

The principal document used to prepare this article is a compilation of past minutes and related correspondence prepared by Robert B. Howard, Jr., an early Secretary of the Metro. This document was provided by Retired Chief and former NFPA staff member Joe Redden. Joe also proved to be a personal historical source; as you will notice below, he was one of the founding members of the Metro and he has remained active over the years. Thanks Joe!

The Metropolitan Fire Chiefs’ Committee was formed in 1965 at a meeting held during the IAFC convention in Miami, FL. The founding members included: Chief John O’Hagan, New York , NY; Chief John Killen, Baltimore, MD; Chief Henry Galotta, Washington, D.C.; Chief Joseph Redden, Newark, NJ; Chief Glenn Thom, Detroit, MI; Chief Fire Marshal Curtis Volkamer, Chicago, IL; Chief William Terrenzi, Boston, MA; Chief William Murray, San Francisco, CA; Commissioner James McCarey, Philadelphia, PA; Retired Chief Edward P. McAniff, New York, NY; and, Donald M. O’Brien, General Manager of the IAFC. Chief O’Hagan served as the committee’s first chair.

The purpose for forming the Metro Committee was to “Address particular problems of large-city fire departments that were becoming increasingly complex...” One of the committee’s early goals was to promote the establishment of a National Office of Fire Defense. This office was to have two primary goals: (1) To obtain federal money to aid cities in obtaining needed equipment; and (2) To create a National Fire Academy.

I found goal two above extremely interesting. In 1974, nine years after the historic Miami meeting, Public Law 93-498 - The Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act was passed providing authority for the creation of today’s National Fire Academy.

Even though the original committee consisted of a small group of chiefs, from the very beginning the committee recognized the value of being inclusive. One of the first committee actions was to send questionnaires out to chiefs of all cities with populations of 500,000 or greater. The purpose of this questionnaire was to “pool experiences and knowledge for a presentation at the 1966 IAFC convention in Boston, MA.”

Also in 1966, the committee submitted a proposal to Mr. Robert Weaver, Secretary of HUD, outlining the needs of the fire service and the advantages of the Committee having a liaison with his agency. The following are excerpts from Chief O’Hagan’s proposal to HUD:

Fire protection in the urban communities continues to become more costly and complex. Although the responsibility to provide and maintain effective fire protection in terms of men and fire apparatus should remain with the local community, there is grave doubt that certain other phases of fire administration can be carried out efficiently on a local basis...

There are presently in progress many research programs in the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense, the National Research Council and other branches of the government which are directly related to the fire problem. The findings of these programs, however, are not related to the practical problems of the urban communities, for they are not intended to afford this type of service.

In the past, the fire service depended heavily on the insurance companies for research and the establishment of standards of fire protection...The shortcomings of this approach on a city level are apparent when we consider that the owner is seldom the occupant in these buildings (were most fires occur) and the fires are as often related to the person as to the physical objects involved. A knowledge of the social, managerial and behavioral sciences are now at least equal to the physical and engineering sciences of fire research.

The fire problem existing in our major cities today are more similar than dissimilar. The old story that no two cities are alike is as archaic as the old principle that inasmuch as no two fires are exactly alike, there is little knowledge that can be applied to both instances. The present similarity of problems cries out for as simple a procedure as uniform reporting methods...

To meet the fire service needs described by Chief O’Hagan above, the committee made the following proposal to HUD:

  • Create an office within the Department of Housing and Urban Development to meet fire service needs.
  • Develop a liaison with all agencies conducting research in the fire field and secure representation on the research committees so that the needs of fire departments can be recognized and included in the program goals. Technological developments should be investigated for adaptation to fire science needs.
  • Command and executive schools should be established to develop a trained administrative corps with common backgrounds to integrate the diverse elements in the present fire service and weld them into a coordinated group for maximum efficiency.
  • Development programs for new apparatus, techniques and procedures should be encouraged and the information disseminated.
  • The office should serve as a clearinghouse for developments, tests, experiments and papers emanating from the numerous fire departments throughout the country.
  • By establishing this office and the necessary supporting positions, HUD will have taken the first step to assist this vital service to meet the challenges of tomorrow as urban growth accelerates and its function of community protection becomes more complex.

As I poured over these historical documents, I could sense the energy of this early committee. Even though the formal group remained small, they did not operate in a vacuum; from the beginning this core group of chiefs pooled the experience, ideas, and knowledge of chiefs throughout the country. My research also gave me a true appreciation for their vision. Early on these chiefs recognized the importance of the behavioral sciences in solving the fire problem. Also, even though the chiefs on the Metro Committee commanded some of the largest fire forces in the world, they understood clearly that the fire problem was bigger than any of them individually. And, in some cases, members of the committee seem almost prophetic. For example, in 1966 Philadelphia Fire Commissioner James McCarey proposed a uniform fire reporting system. Look at where we are today and remember these proposals were made more than 30 years ago!

In the Spring of 1967, Philadelphia Commissioner James McCarey and New Haven Chief Frank Sweeney co-chaired a Metro Committee Membership Eligibility Subcommittee. This subcommittee set membership criteria as follows: “Chiefs of cities of over 250,000 population and/or paid departments of 400 or more firefighters.” Based on this established criteria, chiefs of the following 64 fire departments were eligible to join the Metro Committee:

Over 1,000,000
Chicago, IL
Detroit, MI
Houston, TX
Los Angeles, CA
New York City, NY
Philadelphia, PA

500,000 - 1,000,000
Atlanta, GA
Baltimore, MD
Boston, MA
Buffalo, NY
Cleveland, OH
Columbus, OH
Dallas, TX
Denver, CO
Indianapolis, IN
Kansas City, MO
Memphis, TN
Milwaukee, WI
New Orlean, LA
Phoenix, AZ
Pittsburgh, PA
St. Louis, MO
San Antonio, TX
San Diego, CA
San Francisco, CA
Seattle, WA
Washington, DC

250,00 - 500,000
Akron, OH
Birmingham, AL
Cincinnati, OH
Dayton, OH
El Paso, TX
Fort Worth, TX
Honolulu, HI
Jersey City, NJ
Long Beach, CA
Lousiville, KY
Miami, FL
Minneapolis, MN
Nashville, TN
Newark, NJ
Norfolk, VA
Oakland, CA
Oklahoma City, OK
Omaha, NE
Portland, OR
Rochester, NY
Sacramento, CA
St. Paul, MN
San Jose, CA
Tampa, FL
Toledo, OH
Tulsa, OK
Wichita, KS

100,000 - 200,000
Bridgeport, CT - 446
Charlotte, NC - 423
Hartford, CT - 425
Jacksonville, FL - 495
New Haven, CT - 410
Providence, RI - 526
Richmond, VA - 417
Springfield, MA - 472
Syracuse, NY - 471
Worcester, MA - 481

From April 25-27, 1967, 52 of the 64 eligible metro chiefs met in Chicago, IL for the first Metro Committee Conference. The expressed purpose of this first conference was to “Share experiences and discuss mutual problems.” A highlight of the conference was a panel discussion on civil unrest. Panel members included: Chief John O’Hagan, New York City; Chief William Barry, Cleveland; Chief Raymond Hill, Los Angeles; Chief J. L. Swindle, Birmingham; and, Chief Fire Marshal Curt Volkamer, Chicago. Other notable conference speakers were NFPA President Percy Bugbee, IAFC President Lester Schick, and IAFF President William Buck. Publications titled Civil Disorder Procedures and Guidelines For Collective Bargaining resulted from this conference.

The next Metro Committee meeting was held in 1967 at the September IAFC annual convention in San Francisco. Again, a topic of great concern and interest was civil unrest. In fact, because of the wide-spread interest in this topic, the Metro Committee’s meeting was opened to the entire assembly.

In 1968 Metro meetings were held in Chicago and at the IAFC convention in Louisville. Again, program topics addressed pressing issues such as collective bargaining and civil unrest. I found it interesting that the use of computers was also a conference topic and, in fact, computers were already being used in communications and administration in the New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago Fire Departments. Also, at the Louisville conference, then Kentucky Governor Louie B. Nunn, bestowed upon Chief Joe Redden the commission of Kentucky Colonel. (I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to mention this -- we colonels must stick together!!!)

At the September meeting in Louisville a proposal was made to the IAFC for a Metro Committee Directorship and a $5,000 budget. Also, Seattle Chief Gordon Vickery was elected Metro Committee Chair, replacing Chief O’Hagan who had served three years in the position.

As Metro Chair, one of Chief Vickery’s first actions was to invite NFPA to participate in the upcoming Spring conference to be held in Atlanta. Chief Vickery’s stated purpose was “To promote closer cooperation between NFPA and the Metro Committee.” NFPA General Manager Charles Morgan accepted the invitation and addressed the Metro Chiefs at their conference on May 3, 1969.

Also at the Atlanta conference the attending chiefs (65) voted to established the following membership criteria: “To qualify (as a Metro Chief), you must be from a city (emphasis added) of over 200,000 population or be the head of a Fire Department with 400 or more fully (emphasis added) paid men.” A further recommendation was made to create an Intermediate Chiefs Committee for cities of 25,000 to 200,000 population. It was noted that a Volunteer Committee had previously been created. (At a later metro meeting this definition was changed to include counties that meet the above criteria.)

Following the Atlanta conference, Chief Vickery sent an article to Don O’Brien, IAFC General Manager, to be included in the IAFC Newsletter. The following are excerpts from Chief Vickery’s article:

For a number of years prior to the Miami Conference in 1965, Metropolitan Chiefs felt the general IAFC organization was not totally fulfilling the goals sought by major cities...

With 30 percent of the national population being protected by approximately 118 fire departments (250 or more paid departments), the remainder of the nation was served by some 24,000 smaller departments. It was felt the major cities deserved a more meaningful type of representation...

We (Metro Committee) will continue to evaluate and assist all existing governmental and private agencies servicing the fire service. Should these organizations prove to be capable of providing substantial benefits for the fire service, it would seem normal that we would seek additional affiliations, but not to the detriment of the IAFC...

The Metro Committee took its first step internationally with its May 23-25, 1970, conference in Hamilton, Ontario. This conference, billed as a joint meeting of the Metro Committee and the National Academy of Science - National Research Council, was hosted by Chief Reginald Swanborough.

A notable topic discussed at this conference was “The use of the 911 telephone number.” Another conference topic of interest was the Fire Department New York - Rand Fire Project. This study included Analysis of Fire Incidence and Unit Deployment; Fire Department Simulation; Analysis of Dispatching and Command & Control; Management Information and Control Systems; and, Systems Management.

The Metro Committee met again in 1970 at the August IAFC conference in Seattle. At this conference Host Chief Vickery’s earlier call for a closer relationship with NFPA was already producing meaniful results. “A historic meeting of Fire Service people was called by the NFPA, the purpose of which was to establish definite goals which we should strive to attain.” Two members from each of the leading 10 fire service organizations were invited to attend this August 31-September 1 meeting in Williamsburg, VA. Miami (FL) Chief Larry Kenny and Buffalo (NY) Chief Bob Howard represented the Metro Committee. At this “historic” meeting the Joint Council of National Fire Service Organizations was created.

Chief Vickery later became Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It was he who arranged for the development of a National Fire Academy at the current Emmitsburg, MD site.

I believe Chief Vickery would be proud of the NFPA/Metro parnership that exist today. However, I don’t think he, or any of the other early chiefs, would be surprised. In Chief Vickery’s 1969 letter to IAFC President Don O’Brien, he pointed to the importance of “seeking additional affiliations...” These founding chiefs clearly possessed a broad vision.

These early visionaries left big shoes for today’s leaders to fill. However, I will be surprised if they don’t do exactly that!

I hope you have enjoyed reading about the Metro’s early days -- I have certainly enjoyed writing about them!