John R. Kowalski Integrative Marketing Fusion

Find the Light

Explore the journey of a dedicated firefighter navigating personal loss and professional turmoil in a volunteer fire department, whilst embarking on a transformative journey towards light, positivity, and new opportunities.

Limited Support? An Idea to Overcome.

Last week as I walk through the Firehouse Expo in Nashville some things kept coming into my mind. All these people attending to learn and all of these vendors supporting the fire service industry is truly amazing to see.

This was also a couple days before my fire department was having its first big open house for the community. We had an incredible amount of support from our area businesses… donating financially for picnic supplies and through other items such as coffee, doughnuts, hot dogs, etc. That blew me away and there are people that care.

Knowing over 70% of all fire departments in the US are volunteer organizations it’s great to see this support. There are many challenges though. Declining members (and member support/dedication), limited funding (need for fundraising) and lack of community support are just a few but they’re at the top of my list. But these aren’t simple things. Without dedicated members, without funding… terrible responses. Without community support how can a department grow?

We need to demonstrate the value we provide. A day in the life of a volunteer firefighter in a rural department and all the services and value we bring to a community. To really get them to understand what we do.

  • Fire investigations
  • Structural fire suppression
  • Wildland fire suppression
  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Medical emergencies
  • Search and rescue
  • Traffic control
  • Truck maintenance
  • Department operations
  • Department equipment
  • Department compliance
  • Member training
  • Member certifications
  • Community education
  • Fundraising and grant writing
  • Social media & website
  • Community event support
  • Community, county and town meetings
  • Board of directors meetings

And I’m sure I forgot a few things.

The people attending, teaching and exhibiting at Firehouse Expo and the dedication from a handful of my department members truly show what it is to be part of the fire service. But how can we gain new, quality members and address these big challenges?

Aside from continuing to push the value to the community, I’m not sure how else to get across this message. Continuing to push will directly impact membership and local support (financial and other). But it’s exhausting. I’m exhausted. But you know something… I will take a day or two to recover and then start again. The fire service is THAT important for me, and to those dedicated like me, to ever stop pushing. Through all the bullshit and struggles it boils down to helping people and providing a service. Not because we’re paid or want acknowledgement but because it matters to us personally and it’s the right thing to do. It’s who we are. And I tell you… if you’re not here for the right reasons you will not last.

We need to communicate our hearts and passions rather than “we need more members, more funding and more support.” Why are we here? Why are YOU here? I am here because I care. I want to be an integral part of my community. I want to help protect it and keep everyone safe. I want to keep our forests intact and thriving. I want to help people learn how to protect their homes and property. That is why I do it. That is why I will continue to read and learn, attend conferences and seminars, and to help my department be the best it can possibly be. To lead the way and be an example to other volunteer departments. It can be done but not overnight. It’s a long-term process with every step being methodical and sustainable for the future. It’s not easy but it’s worth it.

Communicating our hearts and passions will impact memberships and set an example of leadership to others. In the meantime, do the best you can with what you have. Nobody can fault you for that. You are the true heroes of the fire service. You know who you are. Thank you for all you do and what you are.

9/11 Stair Climb Chattanooga

Benefiting the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, I recently participated in a 9/11 stair climb here in Chattanooga. It was good to see a turnout of about 300 people even though the weather was just over 90 degrees.

As I climbed the 110 stories today thinking of those brothers and sisters who lost their lives on 9/11. This event is controlled and safe. Just takes my motivation and strength. No fear, no unknowing that those on that day faced. Yet they charged in to save lives. To make a difference. I’m proud to honor them today and proud to be part of this tradition. I’m proud to be a firefighter.

Ringing of the Bell Ceremony

At the recent Tennessee Fire Chiefs Association and Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs Joint Leadership conference I also experienced the Ringing of the Bell Ceremony for the first time. This is a proud tradition that has been done for over 200 years at a firefighter’s memorial service.

Usually a firefighter bell ceremony is done after the Fireman’s Prayer. The ringing of the bell is the final event of a ceremony that announces a brother or sister has come home for the final time. After each set of ringing the bell 3 times, the fingers of a gloved hand gently grab the bell to silence it before sounding the next ring of 3. As the final toll of the 3rd pull, the bell is left alone to ring out. The bell ringing recalls a time when the fire bell rang to call firefighters to an alarm and then, again, to signal that the alarm had ended.

This was done for the fallen firefighters in 2018 of the Southeastern region.

Additional background

The men and women of today’s fire service are confronted with a more dangerous work environment than ever before. We are forced to continually change our strategies and tactics to accomplish our tasks.

Our methods may change, but our goals remain the same as they were in the past, to save lives and to protect property, sometimes at a terrible cost. This is what we do, this is our chosen profession, this is the tradition of the firefighter.

The whole fire service of today is ever changing, but is steeped in traditions 200 years old. One such tradition is the sounding of a bell.

In the past, as firefighters began their tour of duty, it was the bell that signaled the beginning of that day’s fire chief’s shift. Throughout the day and night, each alarm was sounded by a bell, which summoned these brave souls to fight fires and to place their lives in jeopardy for the good of their fellow citizen. And when the fire was out and the alarm had come to an end, it was the bell that signaled to all the completion of that call. When a firefighter had died in the line of duty, paying the supreme sacrifice, it was the mournful toll of the bell that solemnly announced a comrades passing.

We utilize these traditions as symbols, which reflect honor and respect on those who have given so much and who have served so well. To symbolize the devotion that these brave souls had for their duty, a special signal of three rings, three times each, represents the end of our comrades’ duties and that they will be returning to quarters. And so, to those who have selflessly given their lives for the good of their fellow man, their tasks completed, their duties well done, to our comrades, their last alarm, they are going home.

Rest in peace and thank you for your service, brothers and sisters.

What are you doing to make your dept better?

These thoughts keep coming to me as I recently wrote this on our department training room whiteboard. Along with “Listen, learn, teach, train.” These core elements fused with teamwork within the structure of the incident command system make for a successful fire hall.

On a recent call I failed (forgot) to turn command so one of our pump operators and it caused some confusion on scene. No harm was done and the brush/trash fire was extinguished. But still… it could’ve run a little more smoothly had I turned over command when the trucks arrived. This mistake was a good place to make it but it has still bothered me for days and I take it as a moment of learning. It won’t happen again.

Another aspect is attitude and what wolf are you feeding?

Sitting Bull c. 1883

Inside of me there are two wolves. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins I answer, the one I feed the most.

—Sitting Bull

Having a positive attitude can do wonders for a fire hall but it can also cause chaos and turmoil from with that may also spill “out of the house.”

Are you listening to your officers and to those who are more experienced?

Are you continuously learning through reading, attending conferences and online tools? What about other departments or your law enforcement or ems partners?

Are you sharing your knowledge and teaching those new to the fire service or the department? Every scene and training session is an opportunity to teach so take advantage of it.

Train. Train as your life depends on it. Your life does. And those lives around you. Train always. Physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Always.

So… what are you doing to make your department better?

Be safe.

Stress & PTSD in firefighters

An excellent article was recently published by FireRescue1 on PTSD in firefighters that talks on recognizing PTSD symptoms in firefighters by Jim Spell. They begin…

After years of service, firefighters and EMTs often suffer from both acute and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The fire service has made great strides in identifying stress as it relates to firefighters on and off the job. Out of lessons gleaned from the enduring trauma of war to the repeated violence connected with domestic disputes, the fire service has become aware that our experiences as firefighters are on par with soldiers returning from battle and civilian victims of battery.”

Recognizing the symptoms is the first step just prior to getting help. And due to our history, that ego thing seems to get in the way. “We’re tough and can handle it.” But what if you didn’t have to “handle” it? What if opening yourself up and being vulnerable could actually strengthen you? Make you a stronger hero to those you help and those around you.

That’s where a client of mine comes in. Leslie Yancy of Hero 2 Hero offers a range of speaking engagements and workshops on this very thing for first responders and healthcare personnel. From Leslie’s website, “Bringing awareness and education to this subject is the key to stopping the suicides and unhealthy coping mechanisms. We need to break through the stigma that says stress and PTSD is a sign of weakness. It’s your strength.”

Educate yourself on the signs and develop a network of resources to assist. There is power in numbers and none of us are alone in this battle.

Be safe.

Smoke Effects on Wildland Firefighters

Great article here on the health effects smoke has on wildland firefighters. It has been known the chemical and off-gassing dangers of structural firefighters but wildland firefighters have similar issues.

“People are now aware that they probably shouldn’t stand in the smoke if they don’t have to,” said Mike DeGrosky, Fire Protection Bureau chief with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “People know to minimize smoke exposure out on the line when people are working. But the reality is they work in a very, very smoky environment that smoke has lingering health effects.”

Read the full article here.

Smoky Mountain Weekend 2019 Recap

This past weekend I attended the Smokey Mountain Weekend Fire/Rescue Expo in Gatlinburg, TN. You may know the name Gatlinburg due to the deadly 2016 wildfires that devastated the area. Though you can still see remnants of the fires on the mountainous landscape surrounding the town, this small tourist designation is thriving. Specifically, this past weekend when it was invaded by fireman from Tennessee and the region.

With nearly 400 in attendance the classroom and tactical classes were filled with enthusiasm from both experienced and rookie firefighters. As I sat through my first class I have already assembled several pages of notes to not only fuel (pun intended) my Babacita consulting work, but to also help improve my department, the Lone Oak Volunteer Fire Department.

Below are the classes I took and some key notes I accumulated:

Recognizing Elder Abuse

Excellent to understand the laws and resources available to protect elders. Documentation is the key thing. Keep accurate records, photos, etc. with your incident files. If elder abuse is a pattern these records will help tell the story and are invaluable. There is a great checklist to keep handy on your trucks that will help with the documentation. Check it out here: As first responders we are also required to document and report anything we see so this documentation will also protect yourself, your station and your community.

Residential Concerns

Old House, Small House, Large House – Another class with some great information. The importance of the 360°was hammered pretty hard and I completely agree. We talked about identifying the layout also during this phase as the IC begins to develop the strategy.

We talked about potential hazards

  • Attics
  • Size of the structure
  • Layout
  • Utilities
  • Floors, specifically with mobile and manufactured homes
  • Search and rescue
  • Overhaul
  • Structural collapse indications
  • Insulation

SLICERS was also discussed in-dept as a new outline

  • Size up
  • Locate fire
  • Identify flow path
  • Cool fire from safe location
  • Extinguish fire
  • Rescue if needed
  • Salvage when we can

Reading Smoke

This was the highlight of the weekend and the main reason I attended. I believe reading smoke is an art form and a complex challenge that is always changing.

Things discussed included

  • Smoke is fuel
  • Fuels have changed over the years and are more explosive
  • Smoke has trigger points
  • Soot is black, ash is white and contains about 70% particulates
  • Hydrocarbons (black oil droplets) will self-ignite at about 450°F.
  • Polyethylene’s self-ignite around 660°F.
  • The importance of using TIC’s (thermal imaging cameras) to determine smoke temperature before approaching
  • Color
    • Grey/brown smoke – wood
    • Black – polyethylene’s
    • Backdraft signals
    • Breathing or angry smoke
    • Smoke stained windows
    • Mushroom smoke
    • Whitening
  • Rollover/flameover
    • Fire is still growing, light-dark streaks of read over top
    • Flashover 700°-800°F – cool this down or get out… the hotter the greater potential
  • Tactics
    • Cool the fire gases and container
    • Vent the heat and fire gases
    • Get out

Smoke explosion – white, cool smoke

Contained layer of smoke that just needs an ignition source

Has enough oxygen to support combustion

No heat involved

The blackest smoke moving at the greatest speed…. Hit it with water

Modern Single Family Dwelling Fire Attack

  • Bigger hoses, smooth bore nozzles
  • Cool the box prior to entry – hit it hard and direct (smooth bore nozzles) with all you’ve got – fast
  • Ventilation but be sure it’s coordinated with the attack
  • Suppression

Lots and lots of information, great people and a sampling of JEDS. This was my first Smoky Mountain Weekend but will definitely not be my last. Always learning and always training is what will keep me and those around me safe.

A couple more observations and thoughts:

I worry about the health of us firefighters. With cardiac arrest being the leading cause of firefighter deaths is no surprise as there is a large percentage of us overweight and not so healthy. And I’m not just pointing my finger at others, I could stand to lose about 10-15 lbs myself. But seeing this trend happening with all the knowledge we have about exercise, eating and living a healthy lifestyle I’m not sure what to do. It really falls on the departments and to personal responsibility. Those who would be in danger of hauling 200’ of hose through the woods or a building need to really stay behind and run pump or other non-physical operations. It really is sad to see, and I know we can do better. I’m just not sure what it will take for people to really wake up. This is a physically, mentally and emotionally demanding job. Those parts need to be looked after if we’re to operate optimally. How can we serve our communities if we were liabilities right for the first step onto a scene. We can do better.

Another thing that I am in amazement of is the lack of caring or dedication to furthering education. Not so much the people here this weekend but those who aren’t here and that rarely send people. I’m fortunate that I have a chief that is progressive and actively caring about our safety, equipment and ongoing growth. But saying that, a chief, like mine, can only guide the members. It’s up to them and depends on what their motivations. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink. Same thought applies here. Why wouldn’t you want to learn? This is a job that can kill you so why not learn everything you can to stay safe?

Ongoing learning. Ongoing training. It will serve you, your department and your community well.