Robert Ledford, the chief who led the Columbus Fire Department through some of its most divisive and controversial years, died Monday at St. Francis Hospital. He was 71.
Ledford’s tenure as fire chief was marked by accusations of nepotism and other improprieties, but he had to battle behind-the-scenes maneuvering within the department to lead it through a difficult time, said longtime Columbus Councilor C.E. “Red” McDaniel.
It was during Ledford’s time as chief that the city began to reform the department’s promotion procedures and address the nepotism issue, said McDaniel, who led a council committee investigating those matters.
Reporting its findings in January 1986, the committee said it found no criminal wrongdoing, but learned the department had a “buddy system” that compelled firefighters to do private work for their superiors and led to factionalism and favoritism.
“As many firefighters stated under oath to the committee: ‘You cannot be neutral and just do your job,'" the committee reported. "The motto of the fire department is ‘You’re either for us or against us.’”
It was this prevailing attitude that city leaders sought to address, establishing new promotion and bookkeeping procedures.
“He had a lot of problems when he was there, with certain individuals trying to run the fire department. He had to put up with that,” McDaniel said Monday. “But I never had any problems with him. I thought he did a good job.”
The problems weren’t Ledford’s fault, he said: “Some of those people in that fire department were trying to take advantage of him, and some of them got caught.”
Nepotism was rampant, McDaniel said: “That’s when we found out we had too many families working in the fire department…. They were all kin to each other, on down the line.”
This led to internal feuding, he said: “They were all jealous of each other, and all trying to run the fire department.”
McDaniel said the reforms that began during Ledford’s administration were refined when Fire Chief Wayne Collins took over in 1991 and further improved the department’s professionalism.
Ledford became fire chief in 1979. Jack Nowell was a training chief and assistant chief under Ledford in the 1980s.
“He was a heck of a firefighter,” Nowell said. “He loved to get in there and mix it up. He lived to fight fires.”
Nowell recalled that shortly before Ledford became chief, firefighters had problems with low water pressure and inadequate hoses during a major apartment fire on Gentian Boulevard. “After he was made chief, he changed a lot of hoses because of that fire, and also instituted stricter testing,” Nowell said, meaning hoses and hydrants regularly were tested.
Nowell said that if Ledford had a “weakness” as a chief, it was his soft spot for those who served under him.
“He was too good to some of the employees,” Nowell said. “He hated to take the strict disciplinary route. If somebody messed up, he would do anything he could save their job.”
Frank Martin was mayor when Ledford was moved to director of the city’s emergency management operations.
“I inherited a situation where there was a widely perceived division in the fire department,” Martin said. “I felt the best way to handle it was to ask Chief Ledford to move to emergency management. He did. And he did a good job.”