Old guys like me are occasionally asked what we consider to be the highlight of our career. I always thought standing on the “big stage,” at FDIC represented the pinacle of achievement in our business. It’s where I’ve seen all of my fire service heroes stand and talk on the latest in firefighting and what is coming next. I had the honor some years ago to stand there. I couldn’t believe that they let me anywhere near that podium, but I was honored to have the chance to do it. But as it turns out, that’s not the highlight of my career.
As I walked to the podium that day with the butterflies in my stomach and sweaty palms, I noticed the size of the room. It’s spreads out left to right with thousands of firefighters waiting to hear something interesting. And in true fire service fashion, out of all of the thousands in the room, somehow the front row was empty. Empty, except for one person sitting in the first seat on the right side of the row. Sitting there alone was Tom Brennan. Out of all of the people in that huge room, Tom was the only one I could see.
Growing up in the fire service, Tom was my “tactical hero.” I read everything he wrote, watched every speech I could attend, and had the occasion to meet him several times over the years. And now he is looking directly at me with an amused expression on his face. All I could do was take a deep breath and pray for a lightning strike at that point.
Somehow I survived that event and everything went fine. After the talk, Tom slapped me on the back and said “good job kid.” He invited me to dinner later that evening to “talk shop.” Now I was really nervous! I showed up for dinner expecting to be part of a large group and had developed a strategy to lay low and say as little as possible.
As we gathered to be seated at the restaurant, I was surprised that it was just a small group of Tom’s friends in the dinner party. As we walked to the table, I made sure I was last in the group so I would take the last open seat. It was a very intimidating group of fire service legends and my intention was to shut up, listen and learn. As we prepared to sit, the last seat was on the end and I prepared to sit. Tom would have nothing of it. He reshuffled the group positioning me right next to him, saying, “Come sit here so we can talk shop.”
The restaurant was known for steak, so that’s what everyone ordered, but Tom. He ordered the Ahi Tuna, very rare. When it arrived, I commented that it looked pretty much like raw fish and I had never seen that before. After much humorous discussion, Tom became insistent that I try some of his tuna. We went back and forth for several minutes like a father trying to coach a toddler into eating their vegetables, until finally I gave in. I tried it and it was awesome! Tom was right! It is good! Turns out, we never really did talk about the fire department much that night. We just had a great dinner and joked and a fantastic time.
Tom was right. Tom was right about a lot. He always said that we must apply our tactics to make the building “behave.” All of the various assignments occur “in concert” to get the building to do what we want it to do. He described the fireground as a symphony, with the chief directing multiple units with various tasks working to “sound good” together. That requires competent firefighters with the right tools, operating simultaneously to control the building and the fire. That remains true today. But, the fuels involved in our fires have changed. The construction of the buildings the fires are in have changed. And now the latest research has armed us with the understanding to get most out how we fight fire in the modern environment. So, our methods of making the building behave are being updated to meet the challenge.
Tom left us some time ago, but others have stepped in to carry the flag. The FDNY and Chicago Fire Department continue to lead the way, conducting and applying the research and tactics. At FDIC 2014, FDNY Battalion Chief George Healy will take that same stage talk about the future of firefighting. We have more tools to help us make the building behave than ever before. I think Tom would be very happy about that. I’ll be there with a note pad ready to go.
Last night I was eating in a steak restaurant and I recalled what I consider to be the highlight of my career. It was a moment I will never forget. I ordered the Ahi Tuna.