Leo Stapleton, Former Boston Fire Commissioner/Chief of Department, Passes

The Boston (MA) Fire Department Public Information Office has confirmed the passing of Leo D. Stapleton, fire commissioner/chief of department from 1984-1991.

Stapleton was born on September 30, 1927 in Boston. His father, John V. Stapleton, served in the Boston Fire Department from 1924-1956 and was

chief of department from 1950-1956. He was married to his wife, Doris, and had five children, three sons and two daughters. His two sons and one son-in-law were in the department.

His military service included the U.S. Navy in World War II, Asiatic-Pacific Theatre, 1944-1946. He participated in Okinawa Campaign and Bombardment of Japanese Home Islands May-August 1945.

FirefighterNation: Famed Boston Fire Commissioner, Chief Leo Stapleton Passes Away

His Boston Fire Department service included the following: firefighter 1951-1956; lieutenant 1956-1961; captain 1961-1965; district chief 1965-1968; deputy chief 1968-1984; and fire commissioner/chief of department 1984-1991. He was a member of Boston Local #718, IAFF, for 55 years and was awarded life membership in 1991. He was a life member of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts, New England Association of Fire Chiefs, and International Association of Fire Chiefs. He was a senior member of the Metro Fire Chiefs, IAFC. He was a member of Urban Fire Forum, NFPA, 1989-1991; NASA Users Requirements Committee on Firefighters’ Breathing System, (FBS,) 1971-1976; and NASA, IAFF, NFA Users Requirements Committee, Project FIRES, 1977 to completion. He was a visiting lecturer on breathing apparatus, Harvard School of Public Health; a charter member of the International Society for Respiratory Protection; and a featured speaker on respiratory protective equipment at the First IAFF Redmond Symposium, Notre Dame University, 1971.

On the 10th anniversary (1986) of the introduction of the High Pressure Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) currently in use worldwide, NASA produced a documentary educational film that publicly identified Stapleton as the person most responsible for the initiation of the NASA-Firefighters Breathing System Program (FBS), which resulted in the development of the modern 4,500-psi system. 

Since becoming a chief officer in 1965, he commanded firefighters at thousands of fires, including those that occurred during the riots of 1967-68 and the civil disturbances that continued for several years thereafter. One of the most high-profile fires was one that occurred in the 52-story Prudential Tower on January 2, 1986, where approximately 1,500 occupants were rescued from the 38 floors above the fully involved 14th floor. This successful operation resulted in the passage of the Boston Fire Department-sponsored state legislation that required all high-rise buildings in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, including more than a thousand in Boston, to be retroactively equipped with automatic sprinkler systems. These mandatory installations were completed in 1997.

Stapleton was the author of 10 books: Thirty Years on the Line and Commish are nonfiction. Fire & Water, Jakes, Ffops, Lufts, Cap’n, DFC, and Billy Simpson’s Journals are novels about Boston, its fire department, and firefighters.

Leo Stapleton

Stapleton was the recipient of the Fire Engineering 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award, given at FDIC International. “There is no higher honor in Boston, other than perhaps being a member of the 2004 World Champion Red Sox,” said FDIC Education Director Bobby Halton, in presenting the award at the time. “But for a Boston firefighter, however, it is everything to have your brothers and sisters call you a good Jake. I have the honor this morning, and I say honor with tremendous humility, to present the Fire Engineering 2006 Lifetime Achievement award to Boston’s own Jake of Jakes, Commissioner (Retired) Leo D. Stapleton.”

On receiving the award, Stapleton said: “To be able to work at an occupation which brings tremendous personal satisfaction, and to enjoy the association with the marvelous people we have been privileged to work with, makes firefighting enviable to those sentenced to much more mundane walks of life. The fire service is truly a most noble vocation, and I am extremely pleased to have spent so much of my life as a member of this vital organization.”

Paul Christian, fire commissioner/chief of department (ret.), said in tribute at the time of Stapleton’s award: “As the son of a Boston fire chief and the father of two Boston firefighters, Leo Stapleton has left an indelible mark on firefighting not only in Boston but across the country.  He rose rapidly through the ranks and was a division commander during the busiest years in the history of the Boston Fire Department. Not only recognized a superb fireground commander, he has also been a major factor in the advancement of firefighter safety in the United States.

“Several thoughts come to mind relative to the achievements of Leo Stapleton.  His first, and perhaps greatest, contribution to the fire service was the role he played in the development of the Scott 4.5 Self Contained Breathing Apparatus. He worked with engineers and other professionals from Harvard, NASA, and Scott Aviation among others to develop the air mask, which was a major breakthrough in firefighter protective systems. He was heavily involved in development of the concept, identifying the design parameters and testing the prototype.

“While he was Boston fire commissioner, the Prudential High Rise Fire occurred. In the fire’s aftermath he successfully led the fight for the drafting and enactment of the High Rise Sprinkler Retrofit law in Massachusetts. This was a major advancement in the field of high-rise life safety and a model for other states to follow.

“With humor and drama, he entertained and educated firefighters and the public about the dangers and challenges of being a firefighter–particularly a Boston firefighter.”

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