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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.  

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Comment by Bobby Halton on February 27, 2014 at 1:34pm

Eddie, Hard to believe Tommy is gone now seven years next month, I keep waiting for the phone to ring and hear "Hey Bobby, ya got minute for me?" It was a morning ritual that I don't know when it started but I thought that it would never end. When it did end the world was a sadder place not just for me but for the entire fire service.

Tommy taught us a lot of things while he was here, practical down-to-earth things that we should be doing on the fireground every time. He also taught us things about being good people, a lot of things about being good people. Tommy always said that nobody had to be wrong for him to be right. That meant that everybody had a right to their opinion whether you agreed with it or not. I remember sitting listening to people talking to Tommy and going all over the place and Tommy was never once critical, never once rude but always honestly trying to find out just why they thought what they thought.

I put a link to what we wrote the day after Tommy passed. If you didn't know Tommy or never had a chance to meet him you should read this.

Tommy and I shared a lot of things, he loved my family and I love his always will, besides Tommy's beautiful wife Janet his wonderful children Tom, Teresa, Eileen and Brian every firefighter should consider themselves one of Tommy's kids that's kinda how he looked at us. Any time we did something great he would brag about us as if he were his own sons and daughters, and any time we fell short he was always there to pick us up, to pat us on the back and tell us to get back in there and keep going.

I know Tommy's up there in heaven now looking down on us laughing, proud of what we are doing, proud that we're still pushing the envelope. I know someday I'll see him again. I love you Tommy and I miss you my friend.

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