James P. Smith, 75, formerly of Philadelphia, a retired deputy chief of the Philadelphia Fire Department, nationally recognized expert on fire service, instructor, lecturer, and author, died Tuesday, March 1, of cancer at his home in Ocean City, N.J.
Chief Smith knew fire fighting like few others. He was a member of the Philadelphia Fire Department for 41 years, rising from a 19-year-old rookie in 1966 to deputy chief, the department’s highest civil service rank, in 1987. He worked for engine and ladder companies in every section of the city and served for four years as director of the Philadelphia Fire Academy.
He graduated from the U.S. Fire Administration’s executive fire officer’s program, made himself an authority on strategy and the tactics of fighting fires, and, committed to sharing that knowledge, became a popular instructor and mentor at the National Fire Academy, the Emergency Management Institute, and the National Emergency Training Center in Maryland.
Using humor, common sense, and personal anecdotes, he lectured, analyzed, and testified around the country about fire service issues and procedures, and published a textbook, Strategic and Tactical Considerations on the Fireground, in 2016 that is in its fourth printing. He wrote and consulted on books and hundreds of articles about fire service, and penned a column called “Fire Studies” that appeared in Firehouse magazine for 34 years.
“Traveling across the country, giving seminars and meeting firefighters from every size fire department has shown me that talented firefighters are found everywhere,” Chief Smith said in his final column. “It has shown me that camaraderie is alive and well in the fire service. It makes me proud to say I’m a firefighter.”
Colleagues and friends paid tribute to Chief Smith last week by saluting from highway overpasses as his family traveled from Ocean City to Philadelphia between funeral services, and many wrote moving online tributes.
“He was one of the main reasons I chose firefighting and EMS as my initial career path,” one colleague said in an online tribute. Another wrote that Chief Smith was a “scholar, a teacher, a high-priest of the discipline, an inspiration to keep your head in the books and endeavor to perfect your craft.”
His son, James P. Smith Jr., the fire chief in Ocean City, said: “His compassion separated him from most other people. As larger than life that Dad was with his accomplishments within the fire service, he was that much better of a person and a family man.”
Born Nov. 15, 1946, in Philadelphia, Chief Smith grew up in Tacony and graduated from Father Judge High School. He worked as a teenager to help his mother and nine younger siblings after his father died and got a job with the Fire Department right out of high school.
He met Patricia O’Malley in the neighborhood, and they were married in 1967. They had son Jim and daughter Colleen, and lived in Tacony and Rhawnhurst before moving to Ocean City when he retired in 2007.
Away from work, Chief Smith coached his son’s youth baseball, soccer, and basketball teams, and later closely followed the athletic exploits of his grandsons, making them scrapbooks and texting them encouragement and constructive advice.
On lazy summer afternoons, he liked to chew over family issues, politics, and other topics at the kitchen table with his daughter. “It was always fun and often thought-provoking,” she said.
He cooked and baked (especially at the firehouse), played cards and golf, and fished and rode dirt bikes in the Pocono Mountains. He personally renovated every room of their home in Tacony and later traveled to Europe with his wife.
“It never gets old hearing people praise Dad for not only his knowledge but his wonderful demeanor,” his son wrote in a tribute that was published last month in Firehouse magazine. “To use Dad’s own term, he’s good people.”
In addition to his wife and children, Chief Smith is survived by five grandchildren, one great-grandson, four sisters, and five brothers. A sister died earlier.
Services were March 11 and 12.
Donations in his name may be made to the Charitable Trust, Philadelphia Firefighters Local 22, 415 N. Fifth St., Philadelphia Pa. 19123.