Ken Hudson

REVELO ISSUE 03 • Written by Michael C. Upton

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As an eight-year-old boy, Ken Hudson loved to see the fire trucks responding to calls in his Philadelphia neighborhood of Carroll Park—so much so, that he took it upon himself to bring the trucks to him.

“I lived at 57th and Thompson Street and on that corner there was a fire alarm box,” says Hudson, with both a smile on his face and in his voice. “They had it way up in the air. So, I went and got a milk crate, climbed up on it, and pulled the alarm. I’d take the milk crate and put it over by the side of the building and I’d sit and wait for the fire engines to come.” He’d do this once or twice a week.

“Finally, this lieutenant came up to me and said, ‘Little boy, did you see who pulled this alarm box?’” recalls Hudson, who has now had a distinguished career in firefighting and serves as Lancaster County Hazmat Assistant Chief. “I said, ‘Yeah, I did it. I want to see the fire engines.’ Now, he could have had me disciplined.” Instead, the firefighter recognized the interest and chose to nurture it.

“He told my mother, ‘If he wants to see the fire engines, bring him up to the station and he can see them anytime he wants,’” says Hudson. “That’s what she did. They were really nice to me. They let me clean floors, wash dishes, and wipe down the apparatus—all that fun stuff. I just thought that was the best thing.”

Every day during summer, Hudson made his way to the station. It turned out to be a calling fulfilled as the 68-year-old has spent his life in the field (after a brief stint as a news cinematographer and film editor postgraduating from Temple University). He joined the Philadelphia Fire Department in the 1960s. He’s been photographed saving children from burning buildings. He’s stepped over charred bodies in his efforts to fight a fire. He’s been burned and holds stories he can’t retell.

Now in Lancaster, retired from a private company he built providing hazmat training nationwide, Hudson has taken an administrative role as he is in charge of training with Lancaster County Hazmat. He’s accumulated more than 4,000 hours of training in his lifetime and is a certified instructor through the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy.

“You are always learning,” says Hudson, who attends many national conferences and reports what he has learned back to Lancaster County fire departments.

“The changes in safety have been great,” he says, looking back at his career to a time when a firefighter was considered weak if he wore an air pack. “Nowadays it’s a requirement!”

Today, fire departments have meters to monitor air quality. Safety is a priority. When Hudson was a young firefighter, he and others would just sniff and determine if a situation smelled safe enough for him to enter. The danger of toxic fumes was real, but not something firefighters paid too much attention to. Even the use of seatbelts is something new. Gone are the days of hanging off the back of the truck.

“The line of duty deaths have been attributed to our practices in the past. There are less now because we don’t take as many risks. We fight these fires from the outside instead of rushing in there. We’ve learned building construction. We understand smoke. It can go on and on and on,” says Hudson. “At one time Pennsylvania was the number one state for line of duty deaths.” He credits organizations like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, National Fire Academy, National Fire Protection Association, and others for advancing safety nationwide. “All those groups and organizations have worked together for the betterment of the safety of firefighters across the country,” says Hudson.

Fear comes from the unknown. That statement is probably Ken Hudson’s most sage opinion. He helps combat that fear with knowledge, training, and expertise, all of which he began learning when he pulled a milk crate up to a pole in Philly just to see the fire trucks.

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