Halton Welcomes FDIC 2012 Audience: "This time will be seen as the fire service's finest moment"

As Bobby Halton, FDIC education director and editor in chief of Fire Engineering, concluded his Welcome Address at this morning's FDIC 2012 Opening Ceremonies, he confidently declared to his audience members: "Now is your time, a time that many years from now future firefighters will look back on as "the fire service's finest moment."

His prediction followed a message that acknowledged the "economical, social, political, and tactical challenges today's fire service is facing" but also reminded his listeners that these problems are similar to those the fire service faced a generation ago, and generations before. Looking back at how we have survived and thrived in the past, Halton noted: Economic depressions have come before--in 1890, 1920, 1930, 1950 and 1970. Fire challenges, high-rises, lightweight construction, changing fuel loads, and access to limited resources seem to recur with every economic setback."

However, Halton explained, the fire service has always met the challenges: "The fire service has had the excellent leadership, the men of vision and integrity who guided the fire service successfully through those turbulent times."

Those leaders/instructors, Halton added, had gathered here at FDIC, as we do today for this 84th FDIC conference, to find solutions to the problems of the day, exchange ideas with other visionary leaders, and overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

The job of today's fire service, Halton stressed, is "to find the most effective ways to serve in today's reality, always with an eye on the promise of a brighter tomorrow. If we want to find solutions to today's fireground problems, we should ask the men and women in this room," he said.

Using the visual image of a bicycle-racing peloton and the bicyclist breakaway as leadership tactics, Halton explained that the peloton is the main group of racers who take turns leading and drafting to support the team. One or two team members sprint away from the peloton in an effort to build a lead, in an effort to win. Although the breakaway can be an unproductive waste of energy if done for self-glorification or personal gain, it is solution oriented, innovative, and visionary if the pursuit of excellence is the motivation.

Halton listed numerous fire service members whose "breakaways" resulted in innovation and tremendous contributions to the fire service. "It's interesting to look at the people involved in breakaways, said Halton, "the most significant of whom have usually been led by a teacher/instructor. These innovators often find a partner who shares their vision and who has the courage to ride with them toward solutions others can't see or understand."

Examples of historical significant breakaways presented by Halton included what could have been the first breakaway in history. It involved a battle between the Greeks and the Persians around 480 BC. The Persians had assembled the largest army in recorded history, estimated to be almost one million soldiers. Wars in those days were fought exclusively on land, and the Greeks did not have a chance of beating the large Persian army. However, a breakaway visionary made all the difference. Themistocles, a teacher of rhetoric, an instructor, recognized that the Greeks needed a larger navy, not a larger army, to defeat the Persians.

Themistocles and his breakaway partner, Leonidas, implemented a plan (which was, in reality, a suicide mission): Leonidas with 300 of his well-trained Spartan soldiers and around 7,000 additional Greek soldiers, would sacrifice themselves at a choke point about 20 yards wide called "Thermopylae Pass." The objective was to allow the Persian Navy to get ahead of the Persian Army. The plan worked, and the Persian Navy, cut off from all supplies, was decimated.

Among the fire service breakaway leaders/instructors Halton cited were the following:

  • Fire Department of New York Commissioner Purroy. Around 1880, developed new tactics, pioneered coordinated ventilation, and attacks from multiple points to overcome the challenges the high-rises that were beginning to dominate U.S. cities' landscapes were presenting for the fire service. "He took the lessons learned from the tragedies of the day and made sure that tactics and building codes evolved with each opportunity," Halton explained. By the way, at the same time, the U.S. economy was experiencing a depression, said Halton.
  • FDIC Instructor John O'Hagan. During the 1940s and 1950s (when another economic slowdown was occurring), he conducted live fire tests on the high-rise buildings of that time and adapted and adjusted the existing tactics to meet the new challenges these buildings posed with their central core, new synthetic components, and reduced compartmentalization. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, O'Hagan instructed the fire service on how to overcome another "seemingly undefeatable enemy."
  • FDIC Instructors Emanuel Fried and Bill Clark. They challenged the status quo. Armed with new tactical innovations they developed by observing fire behavior and modifying the accepted tactics of the day, they created tremendously effective methods, which they taught to effect positive changes.
  • Fire Commissioner Leo Stapleton. He was among the first to recognize the value of the air pack for the fire service. He fought tremendous opposition, but worked with NASA and made sure the air pack was made available to the fire service.
  • FDIC Instructor Deputy Chief Ray Downey. He was a visionary in the evolution of the USAR and SUSAR task force teams, which today  provide the most efficient, coordinated, and well-trained response in the history of firefighting,
  • FDIC Instructor Alan Brunacini. He was the first to recognize the wildland incident command system's potential in structural firefighting. He worked tirelessly to introduce a structural command system to the fire service. And he also took the time to remind us to be kind to Mrs. Smith because we exist for Mrs. Smith's safety, and not the other way around.
  • Fire Service Legend Tom Brennan. He refocused the fire service on the crucial role of perfection at the task level for success on the fireground.

Halton issued a call to the breakaway members among his 2012 FDIC audience members:

The next breakaway individual is seated here today--the next Themistocles, O'Hagan, Fried, Stapleton, Downey.

Now is the time for the breakaway; now is the time for the individual. As we look around this room filled with the best and the brightest minds  in our profession, it's easy to see that we have little to fear and much to  hope for.

Every firefighter in this room knows that now is the time for courage and boldness, now is the time to be strong and brave. From Arizona to New York, from Alberta to Calgary, now is the time for the fire service to discover its new leaders, its new legends, its new visionaries.

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