It is with great sadness that Fire Engineering announces the loss of its former editor and technical editor Tom Brennan at the age of 66.
Tom Brennan was born in 1940 in Brooklyn, New York. He was a third-generation FDNY firefighter – his father and grandfather were FDNY firefighters. His grandfather was killed in the line of duty in a gas explosion in 1920. His father, who retired after 35 years of service in FDNY, was up to that time the most decorated firefighter in the department.
Brennan answered the call to promote fire service education nationally in 1983, when he accepted the position of editor of Fire Engineering. He used his intelligence; personality; ability to “turn a phrase”; and authentic, intense love for the fire service to sustain Fire Engineering’s prominence in the industry.
“Tommy found Fire Engineering when it was struggling, and he breathed life into it and gave it all he could,” noted Fire Engineering Editor in Chief and close personal friend Bobby Halton. “He was like Henry Ford …. Tommy didn’t care if your idea was perfect. He cared because you had an idea, and solutions are always good somewhere. He would say, ‘Hell, try something; stand up and try something. The worst failures are the comfortable ones. Keep doing what you’re good at. That will get you far. Keep building one car at a time.'”
In his “Editor’s Notebook” message in the December 1983 issue of Fire Engineering, Brennan cited the reasons he “decided that trying to uphold the 107-year tradition, meaning, and purpose of Fire Engineering’s goals would be a challenge I would take on: To help firefighters cope with the tremendous decisions confronting them as they battle our national disease-fire; to bring the experiences, decisions, results, and lessons of our firefighters and officers throughout the country to the fore; to lay these lessons before our interested and aware firefighters so that they may benefit from this shared knowledge ….”
And he succeeded in his mission. “Tom Brennan is ‘Mister ‘tell it like it is’ and a ‘father figure’ to a younger generation of firefighters,” wrote participants in a survey associated with Fire Engineering’s 125th anniversary. They were asked to nominate individuals who helped to make the fire service an enduring and relevant institution. “He has made truck company operations and forcible entry sought-after arts to be practiced and mastered. He has imparted his vast knowledge of urban firefighting for 40 years-just street stuff every firefighters needs to know,” the respondents said.
His writings, national training presentations, involvement in developing National Fire Academy curriculum, and “Random Thoughts” series in Fire Engineering were among the mechanisms he employed to improve fire service training and promote the health, safety, and welfare of the fire service brotherhood and sisterhood.
Still the most widely read column in the fire service, “Random Thoughts” has elicited much enthusiasm and response from readers. Typical of the numerous comments received through the years are the following comments received in a letter to the editor from a fire department deputy chief: “When I read Fire Engineering, I always start at the back page with Random Thoughts. Tom Brennan writes the best articles in the fire service. Every article is to the point and written with common sense. I can honestly say I learn something new every time I read his articles. I am always willing to learn; even after 23 years, I fear that I don’t know enough. His articles really stir my interest and provide me with a great source of information ….”
“If there ever was a fireman, it was Tom Brennan!” declared Glenn Corbett, Fire Engineering technical editor, professor of fire science at John Jay College in New York City, and an assistant chief with the Waldwick (NJ) Fire Department. “Tom was one of a kind, a man with more firefighting knowledge than anyone I ever met. I don’t think we’ll ever meet anyone else with his wit and insight.”
“Tommy Brennan taught me ‘We can,’ said Bobby Halton. “Tommy believed that with good training, an American Fire Department was the most dynamic force in the universe. Tommy Brennan knew no matter who you are or no matter where you worked you had value.”
“When I think of Tom, I think of a beat-up (Tom had more joints replaced than any man I knew) towering man,” said John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, and Fire Engineering technical editor, “kind of like John Wayne in ‘”Rooster Cogburn.’ Beat-up knees and hips because of all of the attics and hallways he crawled through on his hands and knees. Tom told us time and time again, ‘If you can’t see because of the smoke – you crawl.’ If it was OK for Tom to crawl, then it was OK for me to crawl. Beat-up shoulders because of all the swings of an ax on roofs and doors he popped with the irons. Again, Tom taught us the easiest ways to punch holes and pop doors at the expense of his own shoulders. A towering man because he was not only a big man in stature, but also because of his vast knowledge and experience.”
“Tom fought fires when fires were fires,” said Chief Coleman. “Tom fought fires when the city was burning. All in all, Tom fought a lot of fires. I learned by his trial and error. I gained from his experiences. I run fires better and safer because of his wisdom.”
“I first met Tom more than 20 years ago when I first submitted an article to Fire Engineering at its offices on Third Avenue in New York City,” recalled Corbett. “Tom had just taken over as editor and was retooling it into the training journal, so that every firefighter could take away something new from each issue to use on the fireground. It was Tom’s obsession with “back to the basics” that made Fire Engineering the powerful force that it is. Tom, an FDNY captain on one of the busiest trucks in the New York City during the “war years,” realized that the firefighters of the 1980s and 1990s (and today) needed the “bread and butter” more than anything else.”
After Brennan retired from Fire Engineering in 1990, he was appointed chief of department of the Waterbury (CT) Fire Department. His leadership qualities, political skills, and savvy fire department marketing helped him to establish cooperation and a knowledge base that built the foundation for future departmental and fire service progress.
“Tom was this ‘gentle giant’ who loves our profession and all “professionals” who work in it,” recalled Chief Coleman. “From the moment I met him, I could feel a brotherhood from him to me. He made me feel comfortable and never put on an air of superiority toward any firefighter he believed loved the profession as much as he did. And Tom had a great sense of humor. No one can tell ‘fire stories’ like he could. He painted a picture with words so vivid that you could taste the smoke. And no one could put humor into a fire or a fire station story like Tom ….”
“Even though Tom went on to be editor at Fire Engineering, and later chief in Waterbury, Connecticut, he never lost touch with the finest points in the art of firefighting,” pointed our Corbett. “How many chief officers do you know that could force a door half a dozen different ways? How many magazine editors can tell you where to expect victims in a six-story walk-up with a fire in the second-floor rear?”
Among Brennan’s most commonly voiced observations shared at national meetings and in his writings were the following:
- Leadership is getting things done through the efforts of others through strength of will or character.
- We’re losing firefighters because we don’t know where they are because nobody is around to check on them because there aren’t enough people …. We’re losing our people because they’re not being marketed correctly. Administratively, we’re giving our OK to this by very scared leaders whose jobs are in the pockets of people hired to save the city 5 percent-city manager types ….
- [It] comes down to tactics…. I don’t want to do anything [task] first. I want to do seven things all at once. Now, you have a safe building and you can operate within that structure with an acceptable level of risk …. Today, we have these explosive bombs because there’s nobody showing up to make [the buildings] behave.
- To do your job, you have to know the tactics and their interrelationships–how one works with the other. You must be able to tell people if one is missing what it’s going to cost inside the burning structure …. You must be able to [explain it] in three languages–around the table in the station, to the press when you have a chance, and to the financial people-to make them understand your job in their language.
- The company officer is a dying breed in the fire service. The company officer has been relegated to being a butt man on a portable ladder and the number 2 person behind a 1 3/4 inch automatic nozzle…Lack of staffing has caused the company officer to become a tactician. The company officer who puts his/her hand into the tactic is absolutely useless. There is no company officer. The company officer is the last person who, by saying yes or no, has the last word about whether that firefighter is going to be injured or killed ….
- To new recruits, he issued the following “word of caution: You will arrive at many plateaus in your career from here on. And this moment is most assuredly one of them. You have successfully completed training, and you think it’s over! Nothing could be further from the truth. No firefighter is worth anything to himself, his department, or his community the moment he believes that he knows enough or knows it all. Training is and must be an ongoing concept-from day one (one) until day last. That idea should be accepted by the probationary firefighter and nodded to in agreement by the chief ….”You are now a member of the world’s greatest profession. You will ascend to personal highs that only another firefighter will understand. You will also be brought to tears that only you will understand. Our job is truly unique in its humor as well as in its sorrow. I only pray that you will always be able to function between those two extreme feelings so that one never overshadows the other ….
“It’s now up to you to make people better off because you came this way, because you responded, because you showed up. You are your brothers’ keeper-keep them safe ….”
“In our last conversation, I told Tommy how happy I was after going to Washington for the Congressional Fire Services Institute dinner in early April,” noted Halton. “I told him I thought the American Firefighter is no longer slugging it out alone. We agreed that you can sense that leadership of the American Fire Service has begun a new era of cooperation, of shared vision, and ego subjugation. I was excited because the firefighter joining today in Philadelphia, San Diego, Seattle, and Phoenix will be better represented, better trained, and better led than any other generation of firefighters …. Tommy said the good old days aren’t over -well maybe for the has been’s and the blind – but he said if you’re paying attention, you ‘ain’t seen nothing yet. The best of times are still to come.’ “
Brennan has had an immense influence on the firefighting family. He forged many personal relationships across the nation. As Corbett noted, “I know many of you reading/hearing this will remember Tom as your friend. That was the great thing about Tom: You met him, and you had a friend for life.”
Brennan, for all his seriousness and intensity when it came to safe “commonsense” and “simple” effective firefighting had a keen sense of humor and the gift of being the “life of the party.” “Tom’s sense of humor endeared him to many in this business,” explained Corbett. “One real-life incident he shared with me many years ago has always stuck with me. Tom was trapped on a Brooklyn tenement fire escape; fire was blowing out of the windows in his only escape path. Another firefighter (and mutual friend) emerged on the fire escape of the building next door. On seeing Tom and his predicament, the firefighter exclaimed, ‘Tom, if you take your hook and hang it off the fire escape, you can swing yourself over to me, and I’ll catch you!’ Tom yelled back, ‘$%#? *^@, I’ll take my chances!’ That was Tom in a nutshell.”
Brennan had a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he graduated summa cum laude. He was awarded the College’s “Distinguished Alumni Award some 20 years later. In 1998, Tom Brennan was the recipient of the Fire Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award. He was co-editor of The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995), was featured in the video Brennan and Bruno Unplugged (Fire Engineering/FDIC, 1999), and was a regular contributor to Firenuggets.com.
Brennan married his wife Janet in 1964; they have four children: Thomas, Teresa, Eileen, and Brian.
Tom had indelibly imprinted his unique impressions on “his beloved fire service”:
- As the consummate, passionate “Tommy Truck.”
- As a 20-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), where he responded to some 30,000 fire calls and from which he retired as captain.
- As one of the most important fire service educators of his generation.
- As a writer and the editor of Fire Engineering, and as a technical editor.
- As the chief of the Waterbury (CT) Fire Department.
- As someone who wanted to make a meaningful difference to what he termed “my thinking fire service.”