Dr. Burt Clark: Fire Service History Maker

A while ago I wrote a post on who were some of the people who’ve had a positive influence on my fire service career. One of those people is

Dr. Burt Clark, Fire Officer

Dr. Burt Clark, Fire Officer

Dr. Burton Clark who recently retired from his position on the staff at the National Fire Academy, where among many roles, he was a co-founder and Co-chair for the Executive Fire Officer Program, with Charles “Chuck” Burkell (Also recently retired).

Today, I learned that Dr. Clark had been recognized as a History Maker by the National Fire Heritage Center.

The “History Makers” feature of the NFHC News-letter will profile living members of the fire protection community who have made history by making a difference.

Many of us first became familiar with Dr. Clark and his “big thinking” approach to fire service issues when he was among the first fire service leaders on this firefighter safety issue:  Firefighter “Mayday”.  Dr. Clark was the first to bring awareness to the issue by asking the tough questions:

  • What constitutes a “Mayday” situation? We were all taught to call for help if we got in trouble, but nobody had ever “defined” what trouble looked like? Dr. Clark showed us the way.
  • Why don’t firefighters call “Mayday”? Dr. Clark helped us see that it was a combination of the above (not recognizing what being in trouble meant) and our overriding macho attitude (tough firefighters don’t need anybody’s help).
  • How should a firefighter declare “Mayday” and how should the Incident Commander respond to a “Mayday” declaration?
Burt Clark Lecturer

Speaker and writer on firefighter health and safety issues.

Thanks to Dr. Clark’s advocacy, a great many departments now have training and policies and procedures that address the questions and that provide answers to their members. More importantly, we’ve started to break down the “don’t call for help, it’s a sign of weakness” mindset in the fire service (Though we still have work to be done).

That might have been a “career milestone” for most people, but not Dr. Clark. He next “took up the flag” on the issue of firefighters dying in vehicle crashes because they weren’t wearing their seatbelt. Once again, he took the lead in showing us that there was a problem and that our inaction was the biggest contributing factor in these preventable firefighter deaths and injuries.

Dr. Clark was particularly moved by the death of Firefighter Christopher Brian Hunton. Firefighter Hunton was 27-years-old and a member of the Amarillo (Texas) Fire Department for only one year when he fell out of his fire truck because he was not wearing his seatbelt. Firefighter Hunton succumbed to his injuries two days later.

Firefighter Hunton’s story motivated Dr. Clark to initiate another campaign to change a firefighter safety behavior: everyone should be seated and belted before the apparatus moves. The cornerstone of this effort was his development of the National Fire Service Seat Belt Pledge:

“I pledge to wear my seat belt whenever I am riding in a Fire Department vehicle. I further pledge to insure that all my brother and sister firefighters riding with me wear their seat belts. I am making this pledge willingly; to honor Brian Hunton, my brother firefighter, because wearing seat belts is the right thing to do.”

Surely, that would be enough for one firefighter’s career, right? Not if you’re Dr. Burt Clark. Today he continues the “next big thing” for which he’s been a leading proponent: getting firefighters and their leaders to see how our culture encourages risky behaviors that too frequently result in preventable deaths and injuries. Dr. Clark points out, “…that culture is really like the DNA of an organization—it’s the artifacts, beliefs and underlying assumptions that make up who we are and what we do…”

He continues to have a positive influence on changing our culture through his writings and public speaking engagements, like his “Gene

Dr. Burt Clark and his wife, Carolyn Smith-Clark.

Dr. Burt Clark and his wife, Carolyn Smith-Clark.

Therapy” for the Fire Service” at FRI in 2012.

Clark underscores that many of the LODDs he has studied—and shared in the class—are not the fault of the individuals, or even necessarily the fire service. The “genes” that the fire service now carries are the result of hundreds of years of decisions about how to approach fire protection. They started with Ben Franklin, and they remain largely unchanged today.

Clark argues that changing fire service culture requires changing society itself, getting the average citizen to understand that “fire protection” doesn’t just mean firefighters rushing up in engines and trucks wearing lots of gear; it’s working smoke alarms, family escape plans, residential and commercial sprinklers.  (Shannon Pieper, “Gene Therapy” for the Fire Service, www.firefighternation.com)

I know that I became a better firefighter and officer because I learned who Dr. Burt Clark was and listened to what he was saying. More importantly, I did everything that I could to put his words into my actions and the actions of those that I worked with. Congratulations, Dr. Clark, on your latest accolade and best wishes for continued success in 2014 and for many years to come!

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec and his wife of 30+ years now make their home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, rpa1157@gmail.com.