Black bunting hangs from the National Fire Heritage Center to honor a founder, Robbie Robertson.
Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Wayne Powell
James C. 'Robbie' Robertson
Photo credit: Courtesy of National Fire Heritage Center
“He was a treasure trove of fire service history.”
That description is being heard repeatedly this week as the fire service remembers an icon and champion of fire prevention – James C. “Robbie” Robertson.
Robertson died Saturday in Virginia. He was 84.
Through the years, he wore a number of hats as he traveled across the country and Canada promoting fire codes, fire prevention, research and education.
His interest in the fire service started in Asheville, N.C. where as a teen he was allowed to stay at the station. While he was permitted to ride along on calls with the assistant chief, the firefighters thought it was too dangerous for him to slide down the pole.
Robertson wrote what triggered his interest in preventing fires: “A bus trip to Atlanta a day or two after the Winecoff Hotel fire in December 1946, where sheets were still hanging out the windows, giving evidence of the 119 fatalities in this disaster. This boosted my interest in fire protection career as a means of helping avert such tragedies.”
Many years later, he said he was honored to met some of the firefighters and survivors of the hotel blaze.
His fire protection education came in handy when he was sworn in as an ensign in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. The commission came about because of his specialization.
Little did he know that he would fight fire as a ‘coastie.’ On his first day at sea out of Norfolk, he and his crew encountered a collision and fire. They rescued the victims and battled the flames.
As the senior instructor at the University of Maryland Fire Service Extension (now MFRI), he taught firefighters the basics, but always stressed the importance of preventing fires.
Little did Bill Killen know when he took a course taught by Robertson that he one day would work for him in the Maryland fire marshal’s office.
“Robbie had a phenomenal memory,” he said. “He was just so involved especially in fire prevention.”
Robertson was the first secretary-treasurer of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, and helped the organization get started.
The avid historian also whole-heartedly agreed with the authors of “America Burning,” and worked to create the National Fire Academy. He was part of the group that negotiated the purchase of the former St. Joseph’s College campus in Emmitsburg, Md.
Later, he returned to the NFA to help with the development of fire protection courses and to teach.
Robertson, the Maryland Fire Marshal for 18 years, took the agency to a different level during his tenure.“Robbie was well respected everywhere. He was very knowledgeable, and people appreciated that,” said Frank Rauschenberg, a retired investigator with the state fire marshal’s office.
His former boss was one who wasn’t afraid to think outside the box.
Robertson called on Rauschenberg for covert operations which were typically the duty of the state police.
After a few successful undercover jobs that netted arrests and convictions, Rauschenberg said he went to his supervisor with another idea – to infiltrate the KKK. Robertson agreed he could move forward.
“It was a two year adventure,” he said. “They knew I was a fire marshal because one had to be there when they did a cross burning as part of a rally. But, then they recruited me. They thought I was all in. They thought it was something because they had recruited a fire chief. I was even promoted in the ranks of the Klan.”
All the while, however, Rauschenberg was keeping Robertson abreast.
The operation ended with the seizure of weapons and explosives and the arrests of several men. “Robbie was 100 percent behind me. He was very supportive…”
He also saw the need for his staff to go beyond fire investigations and inspections. He established the first HAZMAT team under a fire marshal’s office in the country and the second bomb squad.
His text book, “Introduction to Fire Prevention,” is used universally and the eighth edition is expected to be released soon.
In the seventh edition, Robertson addressed code change recommendations as a result of the tragic events of 9/11, fire safety research with continuing application, and a case study of a very successful fire safety program.
Retired Montgomery County, Md. Deputy Chief Mike Love, who has been working with Robertson on the latest book, said it’s been an honor. “He was so dedicated to fire education, and I was so impressed with his knowledge and outreach…”
Love said his foundation for public education came from Robertson.
“He was involved in so many projects. He was incredible. And, there always so many stories…”
Bill Kehoe remembered Robertson for his longtime involvement in various organizations including the IFE, of which he was a charter member.
In 2012, Robertson became the 10th person in the world to be awarded the designation of ‘Companion Fellow’ by the IFE. He received the honor in Stillwater, OK. during the 75th anniversary of the School of Fire Protection and Safety.
Taking a breather was never on his list, colleagues agreed.
As the NFPA’s first -- and for many years, the only -- regional representative, he hop-scotched across most all of North America and into Canada. Even after others were appointed, he continued to carry on important work for many presidents.
When he was advised by his doctor that he shouldn’t fly, his travels didn’t ease up. He simply drove or took the train.
In addition to spreading the word about fire prevention and code enforcement, Robertson was very involved in the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters.
Colleagues say Robertson was the king of story-telling, and kept them amazed for hours on end. He remembered dates, events and incidents with ease.
Unfortunately, they say, their efforts to film or record his fire service stories didn’t work. As soon as the "on" button was pushed, he froze.
Ken Farmer, a fellow North Carolina native, said he was honored to call Robertson a friend.
“I was so fortunate to get to know Robbie, and have him stay at my house on many occasions. I admired him for a long time for his work, never knowing I’d get close to him.”
An icon and a role model were among the descriptions friends used.
Understanding the importance of protecting the written word of the fire service, Robertson pushed and helped organize the National Fire Heritage Center (NFHC).
“He was a wealth of information. He could remember important dates, people and events. He was just a joy to be around,” said Wayne Powell.
As the executive director of the NFHC, Powell said he’s been in contact with people from all over the world the past few days. “People are sad. They know we've lost a terrific man, a champion of not only the fire service, but fire prevention.”
Ron Coleman, president of the NFHC, said Robertson clearly understood the importance of preserving history. He noted that he and the others will carry on the mission that was so dear to him.
“Robbie was a walking, talking history book,” he said with a laugh adding that many people across the world would be able to share a Robbie story or two.
Coleman recalled what the Secretary of War said announcing the death of President Lincoln: "He now belongs to the ages."