Harry W. Klasmeier - First Class Chief and Gentlemen
HARRY W. KLASMEIER WAS ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY'S first and longest serving Fire Chief. Born in Baltimore in 1923 and growing up in the city, he would spend his summers at Lombardee Beach on Stoney Creek in the county and later join the Lombardee Beach VFD.
In 1943, he signed on with the U.S. Army Air Corps and was trained as a radar specialist on B-29 “Superfortress” bombers. Fortunately, the war ended before Harry saw combat. He returned to school and concentrated on his career in fire protection. After graduating from the Johns Hopkins University in 1949, with a degree in business administration, Klasmeier went to work with the Maryland Fire Underwriters Rating Bureau.
The Underwriters Bureau evaluated a community’s fire protection by rating the proficiency of its fire companies, water supply, and training. The bureau's findings had an impact on local insurance rates.
As a result of his position, Klasmeier worked very close with the county fire companies. He became very familiar with fire pumps, fire apparatus testing, maintenance procedures, water systems, and the capabilities of the engines operating out of the Anne Arundel County fire stations.
(Harry W. Klasmeier. Anne Arundel County's first Chief Fire Marshal - Photo - Credit to the photographer)
In 1954 the county commissioners hired the smart and articulate Klasmeier to take on the duties as the first chief fire marshal. His new position required him to enforce the county’s fire prevention code.
Less than two years later Klasmeier would face his most difficult challenge ever when a devastating fire ripped through the Arundel Park assembly hall killing eleven and injuring approximately 250 on a cold and rainy Sunday evening, January 30, 1956.
(Arundel Park Fire, January 29, 1956. Photo - Courtesy of the Hearst Corporation)
Some in Klasmeier’s shoes may have resigned and ran for the hills after experiencing the negative fallout from the press coupled with the emotional turmoil of feeling responsible for such a tragedy under his or her watch. The Washington Post fired the most critical shot in an editorial entitled, “Where was the Fire Marshal?”
Well the fire marshal was right where he was suppose to be, center and forefront, before, during and after the devastating fire. Klasmeier had conducted an inspection of the facility in March 1955, finding the establishment in good order and within the parameters of the fire prevention code that was in existence at that time.
Arriving at the fire early during the firefight that evening, Klasmeier took many notes on the progress of the operation, the damage, and spoke with as many as he could to find out what happened.
Years later he would reveal in a Maryland Gazette article about the fire prevention bureau, stating, “Eyewitness accounts of the blaze are the first step in the reconstruction of the scene. We ask people what they saw, what they heard and what they know about the fire. You get different stories from different people, but piece by piece the whole thing fits together.”
A few days after the fire, he was placed in charge of a team of individuals representing local and state bureaus, agencies, departments and associations to head the largest comprehensive investigation that Anne Arundel County government had ever conducted.
(Reconstructing the events that ensued when the flames broke through the ceiling of the Arundel Park. L-R Chief Klasmeier, Special Investigator H. Charles Robertson, MSP Detective, Sergeant Thomas F. Smith, a fire surviver and husband of one of the victims, and AACo. Police Detective Charles F. Gleim. Photo - The Sun)
Klasmeier was in a very precarious position considering the county political climate at the time – it was a nightmare, tainted with corruption and rumored that some elected officials received funding from organized crime – would he be made the “scape goat?”
The young and intelligent Klasmeier maintained a cool, clear demeanor throughout. He was exceptional in harnessing cooperation and consensus.
He would not be pushed or bullied by the many egos jockeying to cast a favorable light on a particular organization of interest, and/or trying to make a name for themselves under the spotlight.
He wisely seeked and received the cooperation of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) who had a number of experienced investigators and had conducted numerous fire investigations on high monetary and large loss of life fires throughout the nation. The NFPA would serve as Klasmeier’s “wingman” as he worked and remained transparent throughout the investigation.
The one-month-long investigation revealed that the fire was the result of an accident, either a cracked flue lining in the chimney of the outside stove or an electrical malfunction above the kitchen ceiling.
The panic, locked exit doors and combustible interior finish would be addressed later when the county adopted the NFPA Life Safety Code in which Klasmeier strongly advocated.
Since the county was on the threshold of a major building boom, Klasmeier smartly used the fire’s fallout to expand the fire prevention bureau by adding two additional inspectors within the next three years.
When the county's citizens voted for charter government in 1964, Klasmeier was chosen to lead a brand new fire department as the fire administrator. He was responsible for not only expanding the fire prevention bureau, but for establishing investigation, suppression, training, and communications divisions.
He laid the foundation of an administrative network that would support the day-to-day operation of a modern combination fire department made up of volunteer and career employees where 23 private individual corporations owned the volunteer fire stations along with its rolling stock.
Klasmeier also managed the planning and the building of a modern fire headquarters, fire alarm center and a fire training facility all located in Millersville.
(Anne Arundel County Fire Department Fire Headquarters Circa 1968 - Photo AACo.FD)
Under Klasmeier's watch, the fire department purchased numerous fire apparatus and ambulances, oversaw the building of new fire stations located at Maryland City (1971), South Glen Burnie and the relocation of West Annapolis (1973), Jones Station, Harmans-Dorsey and the relocation of Jessup (1974), and Waugh Chapel in 1977.
Klasmeier was a kind, considerate and classy guy. To demonstrate this, it was rumored that on the eve of the opening of Station 26, South Glen Burnie, he was shopping for bed linens at Sears where he purchased a dozen or so sets on his personal credit card. Someone had forgot to include the station bed linens in the approved budget for the new station.
(Chief Klasmeier at his office desk at Fire Headquarters, Circa late '60s - Photo - AACoFD)
By the early 1980’s Klasmeier had survived two-eight year county government administrations, led a major fire department that handled many major emergencies, built a first class emergency medical response organization, and hired and trained hundreds of career firefighters.
He would retire early in 1983 after the Lighthizer administration was voted into the county government.
I could go on and on but much has been written about Harry Klasmeier. I would like to finish this piece with experiences that I shared with the man who was mostly referred to affectionately as Chief “K.”
I first met Chief K in the winter of 1968, when I was a volunteer firefighter with Linthicum (Company 32). We were introduced by Division Chief of Communications, David Mentzel, while in the auditorium at fire headquarters one Saturday morning as I waxed Mentzel’s car – Car 300.
(84 Lumber Yard Fire, Dorsey Road, Harmans, 4-20-68. Three Alarms - Photo - Jim Vecheck)
A couple of months later I saw Chief “K” for the first time on a multi-alarm fire at the “84” Lumber Company located in Harmans in April 1968, he was wearing his white turnout coat and white dress cap.
The following September, he was my professor when I enrolled in the Fire Protection curriculum at the Catonsville Community College. Klasmeier always had this habit of closing his eyes or looking at the floor as he spoke before a group of people, however, was very articulate and spoke very well.
One of the happiest days of my life is when I received my letter to be accepted as a firefighter trainee in Recruit Class 7 in August 1971- signed by Harry W. Klasmeier. Under his administration I was promoted to fire alarm operator and reassigned as engineman (1972), fire lieutenant (1975) and captain (1982).
During a critique of one of the major fires, Klasmeier shared with the group that early in his career he started the habit of constantly looking at his watch during a fire fighting operation taking note of the time.
He said he did this after a number of experiences testifying in court on behalf of the department. When attorneys asked him if he remembered what time it was when various events occurred during the fire, he could effectively and honestly answer the questions. It also helped him when writing reports or making statements to the press.
I followed his advice and starting performing the habit or procedure of checking my watch when I was working an incident as battalion chief. Noting the time was very instrumental in implementing the “10 minute rule”- a rule or guideline to determine if it is time to pull the crews out of a building in danger of collapsing.
A burning building’s major structural components begin to fail approximately 10 minutes or so after a fires’ start when the crews inside are not making any headway.
(Chief Klasmeier and LT. Joseph B. Ross Jr., Station Commander, at the Dedication of Paramedic 21, Harmans-Dorsey Fire Station, September, 1978. Credit to the photographer.)
I had the privilege one year of participating on the negotiations committee of our firefighter’s local 1563. I was a member of the committee with Ray Phillips, Carlos “Butch” Downs, Irvin Peusch and others. During one of our meetings with the administration, we were questioning the company that owned the pension (I think Prudential) and its validity.
Chief “K” snapped back and said that the pension was in the hands of some of the best people in the business; that it was one of the best plans as well as safe. He was right.
I had a meeting with a financial advisor a few years back and he said that the amount of money I am presently receiving through my pension fund is the same as if I had a million dollars in the bank – thanks Chief “K” for always looking out for us.
(Chief Klasmeier pictured here with his treasured 1920's BCFD Arhens-Fox engine in 1967 - Photo - Courtesy of the Hearst Corporation)
In 2005, when I was working on my book, Arundel Burning, about the Arundel Park fire, Chief “K” was extremely cooperative. He invited me to have lunch with him at the Annapolitan Club in Annapolis where he was a member.
During our lunch, I was amazed listening to his stories and at his ability to recollect events that were over fifty-years old. My hand tired from taking notes.
We discussed his growing up in Baltimore, military and fire service career and whatever else I could question him on regarding the history of the fire department. He was always courteous, respectful, professional and thorough. He never said anything negative about those he worked with or about others we discussed.
Harry W. Klasmeier was the right pick to lead the early fire prevention agency that would merge into the astounding and respected fire and EMS response organization that we now have today. He was first class all the way.
Harry W. Klasmeier, past away at 91-years-old on November 20, 2014. He was buried with honors at the Maryland Veterans Cemetery in Crownsville, Md.
Chief “K” may you Rest-in-Peace knowing the many friends you made, the respected reputation that you built and the fine organization that you started.