Firefighting Giant Dies At 76 -- `There Was Only One Gordon Vickery'

The next time you see the blinking lights of a Medic One aid car, think Gordon F. Vickery. He helped create the Medic One program back in the 1960s when the idea of firefighters delivering hospital-quality care to trauma victims was a radical idea.

The outspoken Seattle fire chief, who went on to run Seattle City Light, died Saturday of heart failure. He was 76.

Sharp-tongued and forceful, Mr. Vickery is credited with building the Fire Department into a national model praised during his tenure for its minority-training program, innovative community-safety programs, arson task force and the Medic One program he created with Seattle cardiologist Dr. Leonard Cobb.

"There was only one Gordon Vickery," said John Philbin, a retired assistant fire chief. "I think Gordon Vickery did more for the fire service than any person in the entire country."

Mr. Vickery retired from the Fire Department in 1972, only to take the job as supervisor of Seattle City Light the next day.

Then-mayor Wes Uhlman needed a strong-willed leader who also was an outsider.

His actions, the gusto with which he pursued his duties and his perceived lack of diplomacy created many enemies. An estimated 1,000 City Light workers went on an 11-day wildcat strike in 1974 in an attempt to get him fired. In 1977, Mr. Vickery became a campaign issue in the race for mayor between Charles Royer and Paul Schell, both of whom promised to have him removed. They didn't realize at the time that a provision in Mr. Vickery's contract permitted him to fill out his term.

Meanwhile, Mr. Vickery continued doing what he did best, thrive under pressure.

Nancy Robb Langdon, his former executive secretary at City Light, recalls a man who lived for high-intensity situations.

"Whenever he heard a fire truck go by, he had to go look," Langdon said. "That was the fire chief in him."

An ice storm that crippled the Portland area one winter especially thrilled Mr. Vickery. He immediately corralled City Light's electrical-line crews and ordered them to Oregon to help workers there restore power.

At one point, Langdon remembers, "He turned and looked at me and said, `Gosh, I love an emergency.' "

However, the intensity of his situation at City Light wore on Mr. Vickery, and he began to seek a dignified way out, Langdon said.

In 1979, former President Jimmy Carter appointed him director of the U.S. Fire Administration, a federal organization created to improve the country's firefighting capabilities. Also that year, Mr. Vickery served as the acting director of the newly created Federal Emergency Management Agency.

During his five years at the Fire Administration, Mr. Vickery established the National Fire Academy, pushed fire-prevention education and originated a national fire-incident reporting system. He also fought for federal legislation to increase the use of smoke detectors and sprinkler systems in buildings.

As part of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, Mr. Vickery helped produce an influential report, "America is Burning," that decried the high rate of deaths and property loss from fires in the United States.

In later years, Mr. Vickery became critical of what he saw as an overemphasis on technology in fire fighting, said his son A.D. Vickery, a battalion chief in the Seattle Fire Department.

Mr. Vickery was born in 1920 in Ruthton, Minn., and moved to Snohomish as a young boy. He joined the Seattle Fire Department in 1946, rising through the ranks until being named chief in 1963.

Mr. Vickery and Frances Schluter married in 1941 and moved to Seattle, where they raised two sons.

"He barely graduated from high school but he could debate anybody from any level," his son said.

A.D. Vickery recalled his dad as a compassionate man, a skilled cook who loved pot roast, and a carpenter who built several houses in his spare time, including the family home.

Mr. Vickery was preceded in death by his wife, who died last year of cancer of the esophagus.

He is survived by his sister Phyllis Melnyk of Seattle; his sons Lynn Harold Vickery of Vancouver, B.C., and Alan Dennis (A.D.) Vickery of Seattle; and two grandchildren.

At Mr. Vickery's request, no services will be held and the family will hold a private celebration of his life.

Remembrances may be mailed to Seattle Fire Medic One, 301 Second Ave. S., Seattle WA 98104, or to The Retired Firefighters of Washington, 18415 W. Spring Lake Drive S.E., Renton, WA 98058.