Story 6 Saving Lives: The Instructor


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Story 6

Saving Lives: The Instructor

Fighting fires can be quite challenging. The accomplishments we achieve along the way are what fuel us. There is another part of my career that I always found rewarding—“I am a teacher.” Ever since the early years of my career when I became a student of the game, I have shared the lessons that I learned with other firefighters. This is called “giving back to the job,” and this is the responsibility of all firefighters. Sharing our knowledge with others will save lives over the years. Teaching is a big part of both a company officer’s and a chief officer’s duties. To be a good officer you must be a good teacher; it comes with the territory.

Throughout my career I also have spent time as an instructor at the fire academy, teaching in-service classes, and also training new recruit classes. Taking raw recruits and developing them into firefighters is a challenging task, but I believe it is very important that the recruits have a strong foundation on which to build their careers. Over the years I have been involved with hundreds of new recruits. This story is about one of them.

In May of 1990, I left my assignment as a lieutenant in the field to take a three-month detail as an instructor of 100 recruits—whom we call “candidate firefighters.” The instruction would involve classroom, hands-on, and physical fitness training.

Time to Share Knowledge

The men and women of this class came from a variety of races and nationalities, and there was also a wide range in educational background. Despite the differences, these candidates all seemed to have a good attitude and a willingness to work as a team. I looked forward to the next three months.

One of the candidates really stuck out and quickly became one of my favorites. He was an African American in his late twenties with an outgoing personality. He was in superb physical shape and could crack walnuts with his handshake! The enthusiasm he brought to the class each day was a breath of fresh air. Early on, though, he told me that he was having a hard time studying because he had been out of school for so long. I told him not to worry about it, just give 100 percent, and I would help him.

As time progressed, all of the other candidates seemed to be way ahead of him academically. He was one of the best in both the hands-on and physical fitness training but those skills didn’t prevent him from failing miserably on the tests. At our weekly meetings about the students’ progress, our chief expressed concern about his seeming inability to learn, and that his scores wouldn’t enable him to pass the required State Firefighter II exam at the end of the three-month class. He was considering letting him go.

I argued strongly on his behalf, telling the chief that, besides the candidate’s physical prowess, I saw something special in him. He had a great attitude and a huge heart—traits we can’t teach. Further, I had a feeling that he wasn’t going to be a good firefighter—he was going to be a great one! I requested a little time for my candidate to show that he could raise his academic scores. The chief agreed to a brief extension but advised me that we were on a “short leash.” Immediate progress needed to be demonstrated.

After the meeting, I went straight to my candidate and told him what we were up against. I also told him that I believed in him and as of that minute, I was adopting him! I would be his new step-dad. We would meet two hours early every morning and stay two hours late each night to study.

His reaction confirmed my belief in him. He didn’t look scared or upset, he looked determined. He was a fighter and wouldn’t be derailed in achieving his goal. He grinned, shook my hand with that walnut-crushing grip and said, “When do we start, Dad?”

Over the next two-and-a-half months, we met every morning and every night as agreed. His progress was slow but steady, and his enthusiasm was my reward. As the date of the state exam approached, other students joined our study group. My new “stepson” started meeting with other candidates at lunchtime, and I burst with pride as they started to turn to him for help. He was a natural leader, and his peers picked up on that trait.

When the day of the Firefighter II exam rolled around, we didn’t fear it. We looked forward to it. Watching through the window during the 400-question exam, I felt like a proud father as my candidate sat there confidently answering the questions.

When the results came back from the state, not only had he passed but so had the entire class. The whole class had caught his contagious enthusiasm and it had worked.

Fire service instructors and officers should always look for the diamond in the lump of coal. Great rewards for yourself and your department can come out of this. How has my candidate done in his career? You tell me. His name is “Firefighter Kirkland Flowers,” and you have just read about him in the previous story. I cannot imagine our fire department or our great city without this man. To this day, Kirk calls me “Dad” and greets me with a hug, and I could not be prouder of his accomplishments.

Lessons Learned

  • Give back to the job. The goal of all firefighters should be to give back to the job and leave the fire department and fire service a better place than they found it.

  • Education saves lives. We should strive to be students of the game and teachers throughout our career. A football team could never win a game without practice, and a fire company shouldn’t expect to be successful without training and drilling.

  • A good attitude is contagious. A winning atmosphere at work starts with you. If you treat others like you would like to be treated, you will see the results. Take pride in yourself and your work.

Discussion Questions

1. What are some ways we can improve our learning?

2. What benefits besides education does a group get from training together?

3. How can you as an individual make the lives around you better?

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