Clay Christenson outside Fire Station 1

The Madison Fire Department said goodbye last week to Assistant Chief Clay Christenson, whose vision and commitment to public safety leaves a lasting legacy that will benefit the community for years to come.

Christenson graduated the UW-Madison with a degree in Construction Administration, which he describes as “part-civil engineering, part-architecture and design, and part-business” in nature. Following graduation, he went into the industry, following in his father’s footsteps.

“That was more or less where my goals were set. You did what your family pushed you toward back then,” Christenson remembers.

But with an uncle serving as a lieutenant on the Madison Fire Department, he began to hear more about what the job was like and was enticed to turn toward firefighting as a career.

“I wanted to get back to Madison and quit the construction game completely cold turkey,” he recalled.

After completing the MATC’s Fire Academy, Christenson went on to volunteer for the Town of Madison Fire Department from 1989-1990. He was hired as a maintenance coordinator for the City of Madison’s Housing Authority in 1990, and he finally came aboard the MFD as a Code Enforcement Officer on July 20, 1992. He spent the next year inspecting buildings across the city to ensure compliance with fire code. Then, on November 22, 1993, Christenson joined the Madison Fire Academy as a recruit.

Christenson and Engine 1 crew - 1999
Christenson (right) and Engine 1 crew in 1999

As a firefighter, Christenson started out downtown at Fire Station 1, where he stayed for 14 years. During that time, he served on the Lake Rescue Team and was eventually promoted to Apparatus Engineer.

Upon being promoted to Lieutenant in 2007, he moved to Station 9 on Midvale Boulevard before roving for a year or so. He then landed at Fire Station 8 (Lien Road), where he served on the Heavy Urban Rescue Team.

Christenson was promoted to Division Chief in 2012 and quickly ascended to Assistant Chief in February 2013.

Joining the MFD Administration as a chief would be a shift for Christenson, who enjoyed many years as a labor union representative and Secretary/Treasurer of Fire Fighters Local 311. But, he says, his experience in the union helped inform his approach to management.

“I think most people believe I did things that were for the good of the department and for the good of labor,” Christenson reflected. “I tried to do what was best for the city, the taxpayers, without harming labor, in coordination with labor. I don’t think I forgot my roots coming from labor.”

His assignment as Assistant Chief of Support Services also allowed him to remain connected with fire code enforcement through his oversight of the Fire Prevention Division. Additionally, he oversaw Fire Training and Investigation.

All the while, he kept his knowledge and expertise in building construction in his back pocket.

“The fire department is made of people who figure out how to solve problems, whether it’s leaky pipes or a flooded basement or electrical hazard,” Christenson explained. “I think that kind of an education helped me out in that realm. I kind of figured out how to do things, how to do things safely, what is dangerous, what isn’t dangerous.”

Christenson by Engine 14
Christenson (left) at the grand opening of Fire Station 14

It’s a skill set Christenson carried with him throughout his career. His perspective proved invaluable during his time as Assistant Chief of Support Services, when the MFD saw the design and construction of Fire Station 13 and Fire Station 14, as well as the redesign of Fire Station 1 and the MFD’s downtown administrative headquarters.

“Sometimes architects don’t always pick up on the idiosyncrasies of firefighting,” he explained, adding that being part of the development of these new facilities was one of his favorite things he did as a chief.

As he wraps up a 27-year career, he steps away with a deep appreciation for the department he served.

“I have been around a lot of fire departments in my day and talked to a lot of people in a lot of fire departments. I still believe Madison is one of the most progressive, well-trained fire departments that I know of in all the United States and Canada,” Christenson said.

“We all talk about purely suppression, but I think our Prevention people do a tremendous job in making it safer for the people of Madison, the visitors and businesses in Madison, and the firefighters,” he added.

What does he look forward to doing in retirement?

“Nothing,” he said, a hearty chuckle not far behind. “I want to go with nothing big planned and then develop from there.”

Although he’ll travel, he plans to remain in Madison near his family and grandchildren.

“I’ll still be around,” he said with a smile. “Getting in somebody’s hair.”

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