FAIRMONT — Robert Burke has radiated a lot of passion for his job during his 40-year firefighting career — not only in the work of firefighting itself, but also in the promotion of fire safety awareness and education across the United States through personal teaching and magazine articles he has written.
His childhood dream of becoming a firefighter led him on a 60-year journey that resulted in being inducted into the Firehouse Hall of Fame during the fourth annual Legends and Icons program at the Firehouse Expo Thursday.
Three other firefighters were inducted along with Burke at the event, which took place at the Music City Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
To receive this honor, individuals must have 20 years of service and, also have demonstrated accomplishments in the advancement of the fire service.
In a recent news release, Firehouse Magazine Editor-in-Chief Tim Sendelbach said Hall of Fame inductees have outstanding service and accomplishments to their credit.
“Each inductee served key positions that have afforded them the opportunity to influence the advancement of the fire service in a variety of areas, including apparatus safety and design, fire-based EMS, fire politics, hazardous-materials preparedness and response, emergency communications and technology, to name a few. The countless accomplishments of this year’s inductees have and will continue to improve the safety and operational effectiveness of firefighters for generations, and Firehouse is proud to recognize them for their countless hours of dedication and service.”
Burke’s four-decade firefighting career made him highly eligible for the honor, as he has served as a firefighter, hazmat technician and emergency medical technician and in fire prevention — attaining the ranks of firefighter, fire apparatus operator, lieutenant, assistant chief, deputy state fire marshal, instructor and consultant, and a fire marshal for the state of Maryland. He’s also been a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine since 1987 with articles on hazardous materials and is the author of seven books on the same topic.
The induction ceremony was conducted in the ballroom of the Expo complex and featured a bagpipe band. Burke was the first Nebraskan ever to be honored and the 15th member to be inducted to this hall of fame.
“It was very nice,” Burke said. “We all received an appreciation plaque, and the ceremony humbled me.”
Burke’s wife, Clare, said she had a happy tear that filled her with pride.
“No one deserves this honor any more than Robert,” she said. “Every place we go, he’s always tuned into his surroundings for fire prevention.”
Burke grew up in Lincoln and always wanted to be a firefighter for the city he loved. His best friend’s father was a firefighter for the Lincoln Fire Department and had a big influence on Burke’s career.
“There was a kitchen fire next door, and there he was — my friend’s dad was first on the rescue scene, and, instantly I had a new hero and future career,” Burke said. “He connected the hose to the hydrant, laid it on the street, and I was hooked. It was that simple!”
Burke’s parents moved to Illinois when he was a junior at Lincoln High School, and he was devastated to leave his friends and his state behind, but it turned out to be one of the best moves of his life, as he immediately joined the West Dundee, Illinois, Volunteer Fire Department as a junior firefighter. He painted, cleaned and did other jobs until he was 18 and old enough to go on fire calls.
Through the late 1960s and early 1970s Burke also spent time at other volunteer fire departments and started a landscaping business — another great interest of his. One of his customers introduced him to Firehouse Magazine, which inspired him, and then became a key factor in expanding his career.
His first article for the magazine was about a program he helped create in the 1980s while serving as a Nebraska deputy state fire marshal. The program’s purpose was to remove dangerous and aging chemicals in the state’s schools and colleges.
Burke’s second article was about a “Get Alarmed Smoke Detector” campaign he created with the help of the Ord Volunteer Fire Department, Ord Police Department and many of the residents.
“The campaign led to my creation of the fire safety character, ‘Smoke Detector Man,’ who was made an honorary citizen of the state of Nebraska by Gov. Kay Orr, who was in office from 1987-1991,” he said.
Burke also has written articles on hazmat teams in Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island and North Platte, which included the Bailey Rail Yard, which is the largest in the world.
After studying hazardous-materials incidents in depth, in the 1980s Burke began a long run teaching hazmat and terrorism courses through the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland, which allowed him to travel to 42 states.
Burke retired in 2011 and moved back to Nebraska, where he now resides in Fairmont with his passion still ignited. He continues to write for Firehouse Magazine, teaches local fire departments as a way of giving back to Nebraska, and is currently working on his eighth book, “Hazmatology,” to be available in mid 2019. He also has set up a hazardous-materials display at the Nebraska Fire Museum in Kearney and searches the state for museum items related to hazardous materials and maintains the display. He is a member of the Homestead Local Emergency Planning Committee, or LEPC.
Having wanted to be a Lincoln firefighter since childhood, Burke visits the Lincoln Fire Department today and periodically, rides with Engine 1, Truck 1 at Station 1 on the “B” shift, which helps fulfill his dream.
Burke said there have been some major changes in the firefighting system through the years, as firefighters didn’t always wear air masks in the earlier years and then a big change was made in the way fire and hazmat scenes were handled — by using an organized incident command system.
Burke said he has enjoyed his entire journey.
“In my entire career, I never felt like I had a job, because firefighting has been my whole life — even when I was outside of work,” Burke said. “Out in public, if I saw someone in danger, I’d tell them. One night at a restaurant the exit door was blocked. I told them if they wanted me to eat there, they needed to open the exit route.”
Burke is proud to be a firefighter and for the honor he received.
“We are brotherhood and sisterhood and will do anything for our fellow man,” Burke said.