I have had the good fortune of meeting some incredible women and men of tremendous honor throughout my career. Some were rough around the edges, and others emanated genuine kindness, like Rosa Parks and President Jimmy Carter. But unfortunately, most true heroes of honor rarely receive the recognition they deserve. That is why this Labor Day, I had to pen this story about Don Porth, retired Portland Firefighter and recently elected President of the Nonprofit David Campbell Memorial Association (DCMA.) Don Porth’s contribution to the field of Firefighting, Fire Prevention, and honoring firefighters has been a true labor of love.
In preparation for this article, I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s most well-known quote, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” suggesting that when dealing with a problem, spending a small amount of time and effort early on is a good investment. Knowing Don Porth, one would think Mr. Porth originated the quote. I have heard time and time again from Don how proper preparation and wise prevention will save a great deal of heartache. Don Porth and Benjamin Franklin will both echo taking severe precautions than suffering severe consequences later.
Historians remind us that when Franklin first used this expression, he was not talking about a disease but rather fire prevention, oddly enough. During a visit to Boston in 1733, Franklin was impressed with the city’s fire prevention methods. So, he tried to bring some of these practices to Philadelphia, where Franklin lived. Mr. Franklin sent an unsigned letter to his own newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette. Published in 1735, his letter — “Protection of Towns from Fire” — began with the expression “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Then he wrote about how a city should prepare itself for a fire.
Don Porth is of the same ilk. As a now-retired Firefighter, Porth embraced Franklin’s same prevention philosophy as a Public Education Officer with the Portland Fire and Rescue Bureau. Mr. Porth devoted his entire career to helping citizens learn how to protect themselves in service to their duties and reduce fires, fire deaths, and injuries occurring annually in the city. Particularly among those populations that face a disproportionately high risk of death due to fire.
If Don Porth had his druthers, there would be absolutely no line of duty deaths.
During our recent interview, Don Porth expressed concern about his colleagues and shared that “the Firefighter’s role has changed.” Unfortunately, many service-related deaths are caused by work stress, toxic chemical exposure, and dangerous fire scenes. However, don Porth will tell you that most fires are preventable with considerable care and caution.
Though now retired, Don Porth has not slowed down. Mr. Porth serves as a Consultant/Educator at PreventThink Life Safety Education & Consulting. In addition, he has written two books on the History of Portland Fire and Rescue (c) 2018. He is by far the most knowledgeable Firefighter I have ever met since I was serendipitously called to service last year to help raise funds for the Portland Fallen Firefighter Memorial, a significant project of the DCMA.
Don Porth’s knowledge and passion are creatively illustrated in his books and reports. “Firefighting in Portland boasts many proud traditions and a long and storied history. In 1851, Col. Thomas Dryer, editor of the Oregonian newspaper, decided it was in the city’s best interest to establish a firefighting force. With that, he founded the Pioneer Fire Engine Company No. 1. Little better than a bucket brigade, this volunteer force of 37 men wearing red shirts started operations with just a single hand pump. From these humble beginnings, the organization grew to keep pace with a burgeoning city. From the great fire of 1873 and the colorful era of horse-drawn apparatus to technological innovations and community involvement, Portland Fire & Rescue–as the department is now known–has valiantly protected lives and property in Portland for more than a century and a half. “I could spend hours listening to Don share information about our city’s history.
Don Porth continually researches facts and history to maintain a website and adds “the site exists to preserve the history of Portland Fire for anyone” interested in her roots. No task is daunting to Don Porth; he has grown accustomed to unraveling the organization’s poorly kept documents, stories, and histories. With no other public venue to share, Don Porth thoughtfully created this website so the historical stories and images of Portland Fire & Rescue can be enjoyed by many.
Mr. Porth uses that same meticulous eye for accuracy and detail by managing the DCMA. The 501c3 was established in 2008 but only recently launched a focused Capital Campaign for the Portland Fallen Firefighter Memorial with Don’s expertise and know-how. I find it most admirable that Don Porth is genuinely committed to integrity and embraces a deep and abiding concern for the welfare of Firefighters newly recruited, on duty, retired, or fallen. People tend to forget those who have passed on.
For example, in Portland, firefighters who lost their lives in service for over a century were not listed on the National Fallen Firefighter registry. Don Porth single-handedly did the research, made the phone calls, searched records not only to identify the list of Portland Fallen Firefighters but petitioned to include these public servants in the national registry-who does that? Only Don Porth–but he did not get paid to do it. His motivation was his sense of his duty to recognize and appreciate the ultimate sacrifice.
The word hallowed is used to describe something that is respected and admired. The DCMA purposes of caring for the hallowed grounds where deceased firefighters rest. Most folks would agree that First responders who served on 9/11 gave their all by examing photos and videos. Understanding why firefighters’ service is essential to our history is crucial to Don Porth and other historians and most of our nation’s citizens, no matter what background or faith expression.
Each year on June 26th, Don Porth, the DCMA, and the PF&R recognize the contribution of Chief David Campbell and an additional 73 firefighters who lost their lives in service to the city of Portland and her citizens. About half lost their lives in the line of duty, and the other half died due to service-related illness or injury. The simple yet poetic service involves a walking procession led by the Portland Fire Pipes and Drum Corp, the raising of colors by PF&R Honor Guard, placing a floral wreath, and the reading of fallen firefighter names one by one as the fire bell sounds in honor. In addition, that privilege is given to a working member chosen as Firefighter of The Year.
For descendants of fallen firefighters like me-it is a meaningful ceremony and a keen reminder of how invaluable public service is to our community through many generations. My 94-year-old mother, my brother, the namesake of our Uncle, Senior Captain Gregory Warner (one of the fallen), and I attended the event this year. It was deeply moving and inspiring.
Don Porth explains that the DCMA does more than sponsor projects like the Portland Fallen Firefighter Memorial earmarked to be built on the Eastbank Esplanade next to Station 21 in the summer of 2023. “DCMA has a multi-faceted duty to upkeep the original David Campbell Memorial, a historical site near Providence Park on SW 18th and Burnside.” In addition, the DCMA, through Don, organizes and executes care for the hallowed ground known as the “Firefighters Section” of the Lone Fir Cemetery. Finally, the DCMA also recognizes and awards medals of valor to firefighters who have gone above and beyond in the line of duty or even while off-duty, never ceasing to serve. I would contend the DCMA is an exceptional, not-for-profit organization worthy of being supported.
I find it most admirable that Don Porth also does everything to assist families of retired firefighters who have passed on with burial arrangements. For example, recently, the children of Retired Firefighter Ted Hahn, a 97-year-old who passed earlier this year, requested help for their father to be buried at the Lone Fir cemetery hallowed grounds. Don assisted with those arrangements and ensured that his grave would be marked with a special Firefighter recognition for his service to Portland. Both Lisa Wheeler-Collins and Pat Collins expressed, “we are so grateful for the Portland Fire Bureau for helping us with our dad; we were at a loss to know how to honor him and his service.” Little did they know that most of these activities would not occur had it not been for Don’s efforts.
It is heartwarming to hear when Don connects with the families of firefighters. He knows more about the Firefighters’ lives than some descendants, who are always pleased to receive the information. “It keeps us connected to our relatives and ancestors,” cited one descendent. “It helps us teach our children about their ancestor’s connection to serving the city of Portland.”
Don Porth keeps us all connected and to our beloved city through service.
During this interview, I was delighted to learn that Mr. Porth will be recognized when he flies back to DC after the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Emmitsburg, MD. First–Don wants to see for himself that all 59 Portlanders are included in this year’s ceremony. Due to the national criteria, not all made it in this year, but most did. The exciting thing is, in addition, Mr. Porth was selected as the winner of the “2021 Dr. Anne W. Phillips Award for Leadership in Fire Safety Education.” The award was established in 2007, so Mr. Porth is the 15th award winner. Few people know that the list of recipients is literally a who’s who in the US fire and life safety education. The award will be presented by the Congressional Fire Service Institute and the International Fire Service Training Association. This past August, the Portland Fire Bureau recognized Don with the Ribbon of Merit for his continuing service to the bureau and gathering, sharing, and retaining of fire bureau history.
Most of us, who work with him, will tell you that it’s challenging to fill Don Porth’s shoes. He does more than most people know about or realize, but it is always with a heart of service and labor of love. So, if you are a young firefighter candidate, you may wonder how I can gain the knowledge and fortitude of someone like Don Porth?
Don has been a member of the fire service since 1980. He began his career as a student firefighter with Happy Valley RFPD (Oregon) and continued with the department as a volunteer for three years. In 1983, Don became a Firefighter/EMT with the Salem (Oregon) Fire Department. In 1984, Don went to work for Portland (Oregon) Fire & Rescue, serving his first 6 years as a firefighter/EMT and working as a hazardous materials specialist. In 1988, Don began working with the youth firesetting intervention program and was assigned to manage the program in 1990. He was promoted to Fire Inspector and assigned to the Public Education Office. In 1996, Don was promoted to supervise the Public Education Office, overseeing all public outreach activities (including youth firesetting intervention). In 2004, Don was reassigned to a specialist position in Public Education to develop the Safety Learning Center, which he completed in 2008. Don was reassigned to his supervisory role in Public Education in 2010, where he remained until he retired from Portland Fire & Rescue in July 2011. Since retiring from the uniformed fire service, Don works as a consultant and practitioner providing fire and life safety education to his community, the state, and the nation. In addition, he provides consultation and support services for a variety of fire and life safety projects. Don never gives up.
Don learned that the David Campbell Memorial fireboat would soon be decommissioned, so the DCMA hopes to find a place for her. Hence, the fireboat is available to the citizens of Portland to see and enjoy. Don understands what it takes to manage a nonprofit with an active mission. In Mr. Porth’s twenty-one years in public education, “me and my creative team (led by an innovative fire marshall) probably raised about 5-6 million dollars through donations and grants.”
The Portland Fallen Firefighter Memorial will cost about a million to construct, but Don Porth is not daunted by the interruption of the Covid Pandemic or challenging economic times. “I spent 27 years as a Portland Firefighter, and I can assure you that this is a special place to me and the many working and retired members of Portland Fire & Rescue. In retirement, I am spending time to improve this situation. It warms my heart to know that citizens care too.” To date, the DCMA has raised $237,265.94 with the help of active and retired firefighters, the city of Portland, and other supportive individuals. The Portland Fallen Firefighter Memorial is earmarked to open on June 26, 2023, but we need your help.
“Hallowed” describes something revered, usually because it has historic relevance, is essential, or has a good reputation. Don Porth inspires us to support and contribute to the Portland Fallen Firefighter Memorial because the Memorial will reflect our history and give rise to our future. So, this Labor Day, won’t you join me, descendants of Fallen Firefighters, other active and retired firefighters, and the many who are appreciative of the service and sacrifice of Fallen Firefighters? Anyone can make charitable contributions on Facebook without any administrative fees to the Nonprofit. Donors can also peruse the website at davidcampbellmemorial.org; you can see the award-winning design of the Fallen Firefighter Memorial, which is both humble and hopeful, like the heart of firefighters.
Don is excited because the Fallen Firefighter Memorial will be a teaching tool and a historical legacy for all firefighters, their families, and the Portland community. The Memorial will be visible and can be seen directly across the river from downtown Portland. “We want the Memorial to be a place where families gather and where people are inspired,” said Don Porth.
As a life-long citizen of the Portland community and a community servant leader without hesitation, our firefighters and EMTs respond daily to fire, pull people out of motor vehicle accidents, respond to a Covid call for help, and mitigate a chemical spill, or maneuvering a natural disaster. Mr. Don Porth and all firefighters, whether active, retired, and deceased, are Portland’s legacy of honor. Firefighters are always ready to face any challenge with tremendous courage, genuine heart, and service to the greater good, just like Don Porth.
Elizabeth Asahi Sato, Descendent of one of the fallen
David Campbell Memorial Association for the Portland Fallen Firefighter Memorial
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