After reading about the death of Chief Ralph Jackman, the man believed to be the longest-serving fire chief in American history, I wonder how the men and women of the Vergennes (Vt.) Fire Department are holding up, and my heart goes out to them. Jackman was their chief for 55 years before retiring this past November at the age of 85. What incredible commitment to his service, his community, his brothers and sisters. How many chiefs out there could imagine holding the position for 55 years? While I understand that this simply isn’t realistic for most, I still wonder how many people would choose to stay committed to an organization for this long, if it were feasible. Imagining that the answer is “not many,” I am even more impressed by Jackman—and saddened by this loss.
I first read about Chief Jackman’s passing on WCAX.com, a news source in Vermont. Jackman friend Tom Heeter told the agency that Jackman was a “legend." “Here in little Vergennes, we don’t think about living among greatness, but we certainly have,” he said. And Carl Norton, the former fire chief in Bridport, added that “He told things the way there were, and he loved leading people, the firemen.” To read the full article, visit www.wcax.com/Global/story.asp?S=11776073
I then saw a link to this same story on The Secret List, an independent newsletter produced since 1998 by Chief Billy Goldfeder in an effort to bring forward the issues involving firefighter injury and death. I asked Chief Goldfeder to comment on the loss of Chief Jackman, and his commitment to the fire service.
“I had the opportunity to teach at the Vergennes Fire Department (VFD) early this winter for the Addison County Firefighters, a highly motivated and gung-ho group of firefighters,” Goldfeder said. “While visiting the VFD, specifically, it was very clear that there was a sense of pride that the Vergennes firefighters do a lot—with little. Not unlike many Vermonters, they are very focused on the mission and delivering it in the most effective manner. In other words, doing what is best for those calling for help, while also not using the very same taxpayer dollars wastefully.
“As I spent more time with them, it was very apparent that this was a very well-led group of firefighters. At the time I was there, the chief was starting to slow down a bit and spent little time at the firehouse, but that didn’t matter. I guess the best way for me to describe it was that any chief can be around all the time and micromanage their department—and it can work that way. Or, you can have a man like Chief Jackman, one of the longest-serving chiefs in the country, who doesn’t have to be there, but the organization functions in the manner in which he led.
“There was great love and pride by the members of the Vergennes Fire Department, even though the chief wasn’t there every day, and that kind of love and respect for a chief is something most chiefs dream of.”
Chief Goldfeder also put me in touch with Chris Gebo, deputy chief for the city of Vergennes Fire Department, who was kind enough to offer his feelings about the chief: "It has been an honor and privilege to serve under Ralph Jackman’s leadership for 23 years as a firefighter and an officer. The City of Vergennes Fire Department saw many changes over the 55 years under his leadership. Ralph’s unwavering commitment to the department made it what it is today."
Gebo elaborated on how Jackman changed the department: "Chief Jackman, a true visionary, was instrumental in renovating the outdated fire station to a more efficient facility, implementing Heavy Rescue, a Water Rescue Team, and updating fire apparatus and putting Vergennes Fire Department in the forefront with the first hose reel truck in the state, the purchase of two new trucks in 1994 and three new trucks this past year.
"Realizing that the youth would be the future in the fire service, Chief Jackman started a cadet program that three of his grandsons participated in—they are now successful career firefighters."
Clearly, Chief Jackman has left a lasting impression on the Vergennes Fire Department. I hope that many of you out there strive to do the same, even if it can’t be for 55 years.
Janelle Foskett is a senior editor of FireRescue magazine.