CANTON – Kwameshallahu Akbar Bennett is poised to become the city’s first Black fire chief.
The historic event happens one year shy of the department’s bicentennial. The fire department was established in 1822, the same year Canton was incorporated as a village, according to the Canton Professional Firefighters Association.
Bennett, 50, will be promoted from division chief and sworn in at 10 a.m. Monday in council chambers at City Hall.
Bennett has served as interim fire chief since Chief Thomas Garra retired March 2 after 29 years on the force.
His retirement left Bennett and three battalion chiefs vying for the chief’s post. Battalion Chief Steven Henderson will be sworn in Monday as the department’s new division chief.
Akbar Bennett’s history with Canton Fire Department
Bennett, simply called Akbar by his fellow firefighters, was hired onto the city’s firefighting force in March 1993. He was promoted to captain in September 2002, battalion chief in June 2012 and division chief in July 2015, according to his civil service records.
But Bennett had to accomplish more than his predecessors to be promoted.
“It’s like the LeBron James quote, ‘Nothing is given in (Northeast) Ohio, everything is earned,’” he said. “And that’s a good thing because it’s made me better. The city has been trying to elevate the criteria to lead and that’s a good thing.”
Sam Sliman, city civil service director, said Bennett did have to do more than his predecessors.
“There’s no question about that,” Sliman said. “All the other chiefs, all they took was a written exam.”
According to Sliman, the city was hiring 14 firefighter/paramedics when Bennett was hired. Bennett came in at No. 11 in testing, which consisted of a written test and physical agility.
The city was promoting three captains when Bennett scored as the second-highest on the written test that was required.
All of the battalion chiefs who came before him only had to do a written test. But when Bennett and his fellow firefighters applied for the battalion chief’s job, the rules had changed.
They were the first applicants whose process involved a combination of written examination and assessment center testing, Sliman said.
“(Battalion chiefs) didn’t have to do an assessment center before,” he said. “We were upgrading our tests for the higher ranks, looking for certain leadership skills and personality traits.”
But when former Chief Stephen Rich retired, Garra scored in the top place and Bennett took second in the testing.
To be chief, one need pass only the written exam.
Now, with Garra’s retirement, the rules changed again.
“This time, when he tested for chief, it was a combination written examination/assessment center with a leadership evaluation and assessment test,” Sliman said, pointing out that, “He came in first on that.”
More on Akbar Bennett
Bennett was born on the Fourth of July. His parents named him Kwameshallahu, African for “superior in power,” and Akbar, Arabic for king or great ruler.
“My father was very much into the historical significance of our African history,” he said.
The son of Roosevelt and Elizabeth Bennett said his mother was “the rock, the cornerstone of my career.” Three of their sons — Akbar Bennett and his brothers — found careers in firefighting.
Bennett was just a year old when his family moved to Canton from Norfolk, Virginia.
His oldest brother, Richard Bennett, became a Canton firefighter in 1982. Their brother, Ibulah Bennett became a firefighter in 1991.
Akbar Bennett had joined the Army National Guard out of high school, serving from 1988 to 1996.
“I was a combat medic in the military,” he said, adding that he enjoyed being a medic.
He hadn’t really considered being a firefighter.
“But once I got on the job, I fell in love with it,” he recalled.
Bennett had worked several other jobs, including a newspaper route, at a Wendy’s restaurant and Lemmon’s Market on 12th Street NW.
When asked what he sees as the biggest challenge for the fire department, Bennett said, “To continue to serve and connect with the community in a way that is inclusive for everyone, and also to build a bridge for the next generation of kids coming up.”