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clark-burton 11691235Fire Service Leadership Profiles — Burton Clark
Guest blog written by Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.)

After writing the first leadership profile of Dr. Denis Onieal, the subject of the next article in that series immediately came to mind. Dr. Burton Clark, Ed.D., was a natural choice because he’s had a tremendous impact on my fire service career and likely hundreds of thousands of my colleagues over the years. Dr. Clark has been many things over the years, but his LinkedIn Profile says it all: He lists himself as a Member of the Fire Service for more than 47 years.

The Early Years

Dr. Clark began his distinguished career in the fire service as a volunteer firefighter the Prince George’s County (MD) Fire Department. Later, he joined the District of Columbia’s Fire Department as a career firefighter. Over the ensuing years, Dr. Clark would serve in a multitude of fire service roles: an instructor trainer at the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute at the University of Maryland; Assistant Fire Chief for the Laurel (MD) Volunteer Fire Department; and Operations Chief for DHS/FEMA. Presently, he serves as an expert technical reviewer for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. 

The Dr. Clark Most People Know

Like many of my fire service colleagues, I first met Dr. Clark at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland where he was the Officer Development and Management Science Chair. Along with his long-time colleague, Charles “Chuck” Burkell, they founded the Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP) at NFA. Under their leadership, the EFOP became the premiere executive management and leadership program in the country for fire officers.

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 “down”.

Today we refer to that fire ground emergency as a “Firefighter Mayday” and Dr. Clark was the first to bring awareness to the issue by asking the previously unanswered 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?

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 (TX) 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 moved 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 ensure 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.”

The Good Doctor Keeps Going

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 once again 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 “GeneTherapy” 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)

Dr. Clark became “Dr. Burton Clark, Published Author” with the 2015 release of his book, I Can’t Save You But I’ll Die Trying: The American Fire Culture. The book is a collection of Dr. Clark’s previous writings (which have appeared in practically all the major fire service trade journals) and covers some his significant career milestones:

  • His early work with the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department to get working smoke alarms in all residences (An effort he would be asked to undertake upon joining the DC Fire Department);
  • The Firefighter “MAYDAY” campaign;
  • The National Seatbelt Pledge campaign; and
  • His present efforts to effect cultural change in the fire service, especially the firefighter safety culture.

(A portion of the proceeds from the sale of Dr. Clark’s book go to support the work of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network and the National Fire Heritage Center).

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 during my 26-year career as an active duty firefighter and officer. Getting to know Dr. Clark will do that to you!

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Robert Avsec

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state, and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. Since his retirement in 2007, he has continued to be a life-long learner working in both the private and public sectors to further develop his “management sciences mechanic” credentials. He makes his home near Charleston, W.Va.