Former Pa. EMS, public safety leader dies after 40-year career
Former Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency Director Glenn M. Cannon, 71, died Monday after a decades of service in EMS and public safety
Jonathan D. Silver
PITTSBURGH — On a wall in the foyer of Citizens' Ambulance Service in Indiana, Pa., hangs Glenn M. Cannon's black nylon paramedic jacket, complete with name tag and fur collar, from more than 50 years ago.
It was in 1967 that Cannon got his start in the world of emergency management as an attendant at the fledgling ambulance service.
From that humble beginning, Cannon embarked upon a 40-year career in emergency management that touched on every level of government, stretching from Indiana to Pittsburgh to Harrisburg to Washington, D.C., and made him a household name in the state's crisis response circles.
Cannon, a former Pittsburgh public safety director and head of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, died Monday. He was 71 and had been ailing.
“He was a special guy,” said B.J. Pino, Citizens' chief operating officer, who met Cannon in the 1970s. Cannon presented Pino with the jacket around the time of Citizens' 50th anniversary celebration in 2014.
"You could tell with Glenn that he was going to do something with his life that was going to be meaningful,” said John Campos, executive director of EMS of Northeastern Pennsylvania in Luzerne County. Campos took Cannon out for his first ambulance call with Citizens' in 1967.
"I don’t think anybody’s had more of an impact in Allegheny County, at least in the City of Pittsburgh, than Glenn in the development of their EMS,” Campos said.
Colleagues who knew Cannon for decades praised his broad experience, people skills and ability to keep a cool head when disaster visited. They lauded Cannon's impact in numerous areas of emergency services. Pittsburgh EMS Chief Ron Romano, who was hired by Cannon in 1978, called him a "visionary with a keen sense of detail."
“He started a lot of young people on a career path," Chief Romano said. "He had a vision and sold it to politicians and was able to grow it."
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, who tapped Cannon in 2011 to run the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, recalled his former director's cool composure. It manifested, for instance, when the two toured emergency management centers during major flooding in the middle of the state in 2011.
“You could tell he had full control of that room,” Corbett recalled.
In 2011, as he cast about for who to name as his point person on disasters, Corbett settled on Cannon. Corbett needed someone to repair the state agency's reputation, which had suffered from a number of snafus, including a notoriously problematic response to a Valentine's Day 2007 ice storm that left hundreds of motorists stranded on interstates in Eastern Pennsylvania, some for more than 24 hours.
“Having known him, I couldn’t think of anybody better that could come in and take that position on my behalf. I was certainly concerned with how PEMA performed before me,” Corbett said. "I wanted somebody that could come in and organize that place, and that’s exactly what he did.”
It didn't hurt that Cannon hailed from Pittsburgh while Corbett was a Shaler native. And both were familiar with one another through the Ancient Order of Hibernians; the former governor recalled that Cannon regularly handled some of the announcing duties during Pittsburgh's annual St. Patrick's Day parade.
A news release from the city carried numerous plaudits for Cannon’s life work in public safety, which began in 1975 when then-Mayor Pete Flaherty named him to oversee the forerunner to the city’s Emergency Medical Services department.
Cannon, who had a law degree, served as Pittsburgh’s public safety director from 1986 to 1992 under the city’s mayors at the time, Richard Caliguiri and Sophie Masloff. From there, he worked in emergency management at the county, state and federal levels and ran PEMA from 2011 to 2015.
“He was a great public safety director, very hands on and very active,” Pittsburgh police Chief Scott Schubert said. “Always the consummate professional, always there to teach and mentor. I’d see him at events in Pittsburgh. He was always a first-rate, class-act person who loved Pittsburgh.”
At different points along his varied career in public service, Cannon ran the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, oversaw disaster operations for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and was chief operating officer and manager of Allegheny County.
That work with FEMA was one of the things that attracted Corbett's attention. Corbett called Cannon's exposure to disasters on a national scale a "great learning experience." As PEMA director, Cannon assembled a disaster preparedness handbook for the Corbett administration and helped lead the cabinet through tabletop exercises.
"He took us through that and saw where our weaknesses were and strengths," Corbett said.
Cannon was not one to shelter in place. Corbett recalled a moment in 2011 when the two of them were in a National Guard helicopter during the central Pennsylvania flooding trying to find a town in Wyoming County that had lost its two bridges.
A biography posted in 2013 on the website of Indiana University of Pennsylvania — his alma mater — when he became a trustee there, credited him during his Allegheny County tenure with drastically streamlining county government by whittling 41 departments down to six, directing the development of the first countywide 911 system and negotiating contracts with 18 unions.
Cannon was up to the task of labor negotiations, having survived friction with the city's unions as public safety director.
Raymond DeMichiei, the city's former deputy director of emergency management, was in the first class of paramedics hired by Cannon in 1975. He became union president, and then Cannon plucked him from labor and gave him a management job.
DeMichiei recalled Monday that his successor as union president led the paramedics local into a strike. DeMichiei was just returning from an on-the-job injury, and Mr. Cannon sent him to work on an ambulance in the field to make up for low staffing.
"I tried to get out of doing it. He said, 'Look, you will work where I tell you to work, or you won't work. Do we understand each other?' " DeMichiei recalled.
“Glenn didn’t take [guff] from anybody,” DeMichiei said. “He and I bumped heads when I was president. But at the end of the day we also worked together on things.”
Cannon knew firsthand what he asked of the people under him in emergency management. While a student, he worked for Citizens' Ambulance Service in Indiana, Pa., and IUP said he worked as a volunteer firefighter in Monroeville.
“Few people in the history of our city can match Cannon in terms of contributions to Pittsburgh and Public Safety,” Wendell Hissrich, the city’s public safety director, said in a statement.
“He was an extraordinary man who lived an exemplary life. His legacy lives on today as the creator and first leader of the city’s EMS department, and in countless other ways. This is a great loss. Glenn Cannon was a great man and a great Pittsburgher.”
Cannon is credited with creating the city’s first River Rescue unit, its first Specialized Rescue units and the first Hazardous Materials Response Team.
Hissrich worked as a medic under Cannon.
“I personally witnessed his leadership at the Bloomfield Train Derailment in 1987 and the Ashland Oil Spill in 1988 while I was assigned to EMS's Rescue Division as a paramedic,” Hissrich recalled. “I saw firsthand how he was able to gain control of chaotic situations and ensure that first responders were able to do their jobs effectively.”
Robert Full, a former chief of emergency services for Allegheny County, had witnessed Cannon’s leadership abilities almost a decade earlier than Hissrich during another well-known Pittsburgh EMS call out: the Brady Street Bridge accident on May 23, 1978.
As crews prepared for the demolition of the Brady Street Bridge, which was set to be replaced by the Birmingham Street Bridge, an unexpected shift trapped the leg of construction worker Ralph Winner high above street level.
“Director Cannon managed that entire event with bridge engineers, public safety people,” said Full, who was a city paramedic at the time and went atop the bridge to assist in the rescue.
Winner’s right leg had to be amputated at the knee before he was brought down and taken to a hospital.
Full said he felt more confident during the tense incident having Cannon in charge “just knowing that he was there, he was watching over us and giving us that support.”
In addition to his degree from IUP, the city said that Cannon had degrees from Carnegie Mellon University and Duquesne University. He was a partner in the law firm of Kennedy, Cannon & DeVinney and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh.
McCabe Brothers funeral home is handling arrangements. Visitation will be held Thursday and Friday from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. each day at the funeral home's Shadyside location, 6214 Walnut St. The funeral will be Saturday at 10 a.m. at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Shady Avenue. Interment will follow at Calvary Cemetery.
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