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Presidency of Association Is a High-Water Mark for Fullerton’s Fire Chief

Times Staff Writer

Way back during the summer of 1962, Ron Coleman needed a summer job to help put himself through college. The former Marine wanted to be a biology teacher.

So Coleman hired on with the U.S. Forest Service’s outfit at the Cleveland National Forest. “I thought I was going to plant trees, but what they wanted were guys to work the brush fire season,” Coleman recalled.

It was a prophetic encounter.

After that summer of fighting brush fires, Coleman abandoned plans to teach school and instead pursued a degree in fire science because the forestry job had turned out to be “more fun than getting dirty.”

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Today, Coleman, 48, is Fullerton’s fire chief and a foremost expert on sprinkler systems in high-rise buildings.

After 12 years as the fire chief in San Clemente, Coleman took the helm of the 106-member Fire Department in Fullerton in 1984. And for the past 15 years he has been deeply involved in the International Assn. of Fire Chiefs. He currently is a vice president of the group.

On Sept. 1, Coleman will assume the presidency of the 10,000-member association. He said he hopes to use his year in office to promote fire safety programs, not only in the United States but abroad.

Although Coleman began his firefighting career battling brush fires, he has made a name for himself helping to prevent indoor blazes.

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He has become a nationally known expert on the use of sprinkler systems as fire prevention tools. He has written a book on the history of sprinkler systems and currently is working on another.

Sprinkler systems, their use and effectiveness have come under close scrutiny since the blaze that engulfed five floors of Los Angeles’ tallest structure, the 62-floor First Interstate Bank, on May 4. Fire inspectors later determined that, coincidentally, a sprinkler system was being installed when the fire erupted.

“It was not in operation at the time of the fire, but the pipes were in the building,” Coleman said, adding that he has received many queries about the safety of Orange County buildings since the Los Angeles fire.

Fire codes are generally enforced in the county, he said, and all buildings constructed in the past decade have been required to have sprinkler systems. Most older buildings have been retrofitted with pipes. After the First Interstate Bank fire, the Los Angeles City Council moved to require all buildings constructed before 1974 to be retrofitted with sprinkler systems.

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Coleman said the sprinkler system is not a recent invention as a fire protection tool. During his research, he found that sprinkler systems have been around for most of the past century.

“I even have a magazine published in 1914 that has an advertisement for a sprinkler system,” he said. “It is still the most effective fire protection deterrent we have.”

However, he said the building industry, although complying with codes to install sprinkler systems, traditionally has objected to their installation because of the cost.

“If you put the system in during construction, it is not that expensive. If you have to install it later, it is more expensive,” Coleman said.

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“But the problem is that people look at the cost and not at the value.”

Still, the fire chief pointed to the traditionally sound network of fire prevention and protection outlets in Orange County. He said county fire chiefs in office from about 1952 to 1965 “did a great job” in establishing fire codes still in place.

“They knew what they were doing, and it has helped our generation of fire chiefs tremendously,” he said. “Most of the programs they established are still in operation.”

Coleman also said the present-day firefighter’s job entails much more than battling blazes.

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“Back in my time, we were more specialized,” he said.

“Today, the job is more complex and firefighters are being asked to do more things,” such as providing emergency medical services, handling hazardous materials and educating the public with fire protection programs.

Despite the new complexities, Coleman said youngsters are still enthralled with the idea of being firefighters. Their eagerness is readily apparent during the city’s annual Fire Service Day, in which thousands of residents are allowed to tour fire stations and see demonstrations of the work firefighters do.

“It is still a romantic notion, and it is still not a bad goal,” Coleman said of his line of work. “And I feel like I’ve made a difference in how things are being done today.”

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Herbert J. Vida is on vacation.


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