Newark's 2nd African-American fire chief takes helm

By Karen Yi | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
on January 10, 201

Newark holds a ceremony to swear in the new fire chief. Rufus Jackson is sworn in as Newark's fire chief during a ceremony at Clearview Baptist Church in Newark. Jackson is a Newark native and 21-year veteran firefighter. He began his career in 1995, quickly moving up the ranks to become one of the youngest Newark Fire Division Deputy Chiefs in the history of the department at the age of 39.

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NEWARK -- He grew up on the streets of the South Ward, bought toy firetrucks as a kid at the supermarket with his mother and played little league at St. Peter's Park on Lyons Ave.

One of South Ward's own, Rufus L. Jackson, became the second African-American sworn-in as Newark's Fire Chief on Tuesday. Jackson, 45, will lead a department of more than 600 uniformed members as the fire division's 35th chief. 

"This is a moment (when) a true product of Newark, a native son, achieves his dream of leading the great men and women of the Newark Fire Division," said assistant public safety director Raul Malave, who attended the fire academy with Jackson.

Jackson replaces former Fire Chief John Centanni, who retired last fall after more than 30 years of service.

"This is a special moment in my life," Jackson told a gathering of top fire officials across the state and city at Clearview Baptist Church. 

He thanked now-retired firefighter Luther Allen for convincing him to join the department in 1995. Allen came to his home trying to recruit inner city kids and helped Jackson, then 21, fill out the application.

"I grew up in this community ... losing friends and family to street violence. My life could have went either way, either I could have been somebody or I was going to be a statistic," Jackson said.

He urged his ranks to "never waste an opportunity to make a good impression on a kid. He or she could one day wind up being the fire chief."

Jackson quickly moved up the ranks after joining the fire division. He was promoted to captain in 2004, battalion fire chief in 2009 and deputy fire chief in 2012. He also earned the highest score in the state on his civil service exam. 

"I was a little reluctant of him being a firefighter," said Jackson's mother Arnelia Simpson. But after Jackson responded to his first fire, he called her and said: "I went in, I did what I had to do and came out."

"From that moment, he's been moving ever since," Simpson said, as she clutched a box of tissues.

Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose described Jackson as calm, soft spoken and a "true leader."

"He's the kind of individual who doesn't blame, he takes responsibility," he said. 

Mayor Ras Baraka said he hoped Jackson would diversify the ranks and serve as a role model for young people to get involved. 

"I am proud of this moment," Baraka said. "That you are from our town, our city, this community, this neighborhood, these people, you are from here and it makes me feel good and warms my heart to know that we're able to do this."

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