By Paul Stein and Ettore A. Berardinelli
It’s fair to say that most of us think that the requirements to be called a teacher are a four-year college degree and a state certified teaching credential. But think about this. Have you ever shown someone that special knot you use to tie things down in your truck? Have you ever set an example for your kids by doing the right thing, even though it would have been more convenient to simply ignore the rules? Are you aware of safety issues and share your knowledge with fellow crewmembers? Do you believe that you need to set the proper example at all times? Well, according to the following definition, you are a “teacher”, even though you probably won’t be able to get a position at your local high School’s Physics Department!
Teach: To impart knowledge or skill to somebody by instruction or example; to give lessons in a subject; to bring understanding to somebody, especially through an experience; to advocate or preach something.
A familiar name in the National Fire Service is Alan Brunacini. Even though Chief Brunacini retired from the Phoenix Fire Department over two years ago, his contribution to our profession both as a teacher and a role model make him a “household name” in our fire stations. As teachers go, there are few, if any, better examples of someone who spent his career sharing his knowledge and experience with all of us.
However, Chief Brunacini doesn’t always use traditional teaching methods! Several years ago at a Fire Department Instructors Conference, I decided to have some fun during a presentation. Once on stage I took off my suit jacket, and instead of a dress shirt and tie I had on one of Chief Brunacini’s trademark Hawaiian shirts. At the same time, on the auditorium big screen behind me there appeared a picture of Alan Brunacini in his Hawaii shirt! I didn’t do this just for the laughs I received from the audience, but to emphasize to the listeners that there are great teachers in our profession that we should both learn from and emulate, just as I was trying to imitate one of my role models. As mentioned earlier, Chief B. doesn’t always use traditional methods. When I told Chief Brunacini that I was going to try to “impersonate” him by wearing an Hawaiian shirt, his only reply to me was “Why would you do that? I usually get mistaken for the janitor.” How many Fire Chiefs have you ever heard say something like that? Here is a man who is an icon in the fire service and he was teaching me that you don’t need a big ego to be a fire chief. His message, “Take care of your people and they in turn will take care of you and carry out your vision for the organization.” is all that is important to him. His peers and subordinates alike appreciate his down to earth, practical style of leadership.
What about us? What kind of teachers are we? You don’t have to be an Alan Brunacini to be a teacher. We teach every day by our actions. Teaching is one of the most important roles we can ever have. Helping others to be their best is a great opportunity for all of us, so let’s aspire to do it well.
Are you convinced yet that we all have the opportunity to teach every day of our lives? Sometimes a bad example teaches a lesson as well as a good one. Take for instance this hypothetical situation; A father comes home one day and observes his ten year old daughter doing her homework using colored pencils from her school. The dad knows that students are not supposed to take class materials home, so he asks her about it. Her simple reply was that everyone else does it. While Dad did take the time to explain that this was wrong even if others are doing it, he then offered to get her some colored pencils from his work, even though the same rules applied at his office. What kind of example has he just set for his young daughter?
It doesn’t matter if you are a Fire Chief, Captain, Lieutenant, Engineer, Firefighter, a Mom or a Dad, there are always opportunities for you to guide and teach others. When I was a firefighter I worked with a veteran firefighter named Don, who was one of our department’s informal leaders and tremendously well respected. One day, as I was I finished making my bed at 8:00 AM and hurrying to the kitchen to get some coffee, Don looked at my bed and stopped me. He made me to stand next to him and compare his bed to mine. Don’s was perfectly neat, without a single wrinkle, while mine looked like someone had just slept on it. He took a quarter out of his pocket, threw it on his bed and it bounced about twelve inches in the air. Then he threw the quarter at my bed and it disappeared in the furrows made by the blanket!
Don’ s point wasn’t only about making a bed; he was teaching me that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well, along with the ever-important lesson to have pride in whatever I make an effort to do. As a mentor, Don had no peer. He continually counseled young firefighters on what to do and what to avoid doing. He gave us insight on the various captains that we were going to work for during our probations and helped us avoid stepping on any of those landmines that can effectively end a career. He was always willing to help us become more efficient at the various tasks we had to perform. As luck would have it, one day I found myself assigned to Don’s Truck Company as his new Captain. While I was honored to have such a great crew, I explained to Don that because of all he had done for me, and the esteem I held him in, I was worried that I would have difficulty giving him orders. In true mentor fashion, Don did not miss the chance to teach me another “life lesson”. He simply said “It’s your job to give me and everyone else on the crew orders”. He made it perfectly clear, whatever feelings I might have, it was my responsibility to lead this crew to the best of my ability. When I commented that maybe he should be the Captain, he replied, “If I would have wanted to be a Captain I would have taken the test.”
When Don and others like him retire, a department loses part of its soul. So it becomes the remaining members responsibility to step up and fill the void left by the retirement of a person of great integrity and commitment. I hope every department has a Don Thulin, the informal leader who advises young fire fighters in a positive manner, and a person they can look up to and emulate. If you are lucky enough to have a mentor like this at your department, take the time to thank them.
It’s not always the “old guy” that does the teaching. Years ago I met a young man while a Fire Technology instructor at our local Junior College. He, like many Fire Tech students, wanted to become a fire fighter, and asked for my advice on the best pathway to attain this goal. He felt he was at a disadvantage because of some youth related issues and his own recognition that he was not strong academically.
I would usually tell the students in my classes that it takes about two years of schooling and other efforts to become a qualified candidate for the fire department. Mike realized he had a lot of catching up to do. Over the years he worked on the career path that we discussed, while at the same time becoming a friend and workout partner. Over a seven-year period we stayed in contact, talking at least once a month about his progress. Even when an entrance exam did not go well for him, he would he would not allow himself to give up and always rebounded. Mike was amazing, he would get kicked around, bounced off the wall and when he eventually landed, he simply looked forward to the next challenge. He would never allow himself to give up.
Seven years later, all of Mike’s hard work and perseverance paid off, as I had the honor to be invited to Mike’s graduation from the Drill Tower. Talking with Mike after he received his badge, he tried to thank me for all the help and encouragement I had given him over the years. I told him that the only thanks I needed was for him to be the very best firefighter he could possibly be. And true to form, he was. I continually heard about the great performance evaluations he received from his supervisors.
Tragically, five years after Mike became a firefighter his life was cut short in an accident. At his funeral service, Mike’s family allowed me to tell the story of his dedication, determination and accomplishment, how he never gave up and achieved the realization of his dream. I talked about his great attitude and his passion for life, and the gift he left us with his wonderful success story. He was, and remains, an inspiration for all who knew him.
Although Mike’s life continually provided lessons for me while he was with us, I found that he continued to teach me long after he was gone. One afternoon I found myself irritated because I was stuck in traffic on the freeway. Thinking of Mike, his hard work, his accomplishments and his untimely death, I suddenly felt bad that I was letting something as trivial as a traffic jam upset me. I thought that somewhere, Mike was smiling at me as he saw me come to my senses, inspired by his memory. What’s funny is that for years I thought I was Mike’s teacher. In the end it was really Mike who provided the important life lessons.
And it is important to think about how these real life stories relate to our careers in the fire department. It is so easy to forget what a great job we have, providing us not only a good life, but also the opportunity to help citizens every single day we come to work. We often find ourselves sitting in the fire station kitchen, complaining about some minor issue. Take a moment to think about all those applicants that test over and over again, young men and women who would be more than happy to take our places. We have what so many people want. It is our responsibility to be the Mike’s and the Don’s for those young people as they enter the fire service. And don’t be surprised if you wind up learning valuable lessons from them!