Polished Brass and Spring Training

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

It must almost be springtime because it is now the time of year when we all begin to think about and get ready to make our annual pilgrimage to FDIC (as of this writing). For the time I have been in the fire service, this has been a very positive, big deal to me. We are told that we will always remember the first time a person gets to do some significant event that will be repeated throughout his life. There is a full range of first-time memory examples – everyone comes with an interesting story. I have been “FDICized” for most of my life, and I can still remember the first time I got to make the springtime pilgrimage.

It all started in 1959 when I had been a firefighter in an urban fire department for about a year and a half. My very young frame of fire service reference was based on the short time I had on my very western fire department, and I was continually directed (and many times frustrated) by the intense curiosity I had for learning the details of my new job/profession.

I was very lucky to be assigned to an exceptional company officer (captain). He was smart, very experienced, and tough. Every day I asked him about 150 questions about everything we did as a company and the latest daily fire department wonderment that was bouncing through my head. My boss was very patient and knowledgeable, and we would spend a lot of our time together in an ongoing, shift-long explanation-based discussion about what I was trying to figure out that day. Sometimes on my days off, I would call him on the phone with a question that was so “critical” that I just could not wait for our regular shift. I previously used a very positive word “intensive” to describe my level of curiosity. He would (and probably did) describe it as “insane.”

Off to University

One day during one of my daily “classes” with him, he produced an academic looking packet that described the fire protection program at Oklahoma State University (OSU). He explained the school had a very specialized, highly regarded educational fire program and that the program was designed to provide answers for someone who has a lot of questions; he indicated that I was the perfect candidate to drive the school crazy. I believe that he had reached his very well-deserved saturation point and wanted to “share” me with a brick-and-mortar place with a long-standing question-answering capability. He affectionately explained that a specialized fire college program was the next logical step in my development process. He also explained that he had researched the city procedure for requesting an educational leave of absence. I applied for the leave; much to my surprise, it was approved. In 1959, our service was not a big fan of college training (to say the least).

So, on a dark and windy day, I trudged off to Stillwater, Oklahoma, and became a fire protection student. Although I had a very refined level of curiosity, I was still basically a very inexperienced firefighter from Podunk, which, at that time, was a small- to medium-size city plopped down right in the middle of the North American version of the Sahara Desert. The pioneers landed in our spot because the wheel on the wagon busted or the mule died; that must be the only earthly reason a city is there. Not only was the school experience new for me, but there was also a group of fire protection students from many areas who represented an almost endless array of lessons and experiences about things I had never imagined. My captain was right: It was a perfect fit. I was the question guy hanging out with a gang of answer men.

Introduction to FDIC

When springtime arrived during my first year at OSU, one of my classmates asked me if I would like to attend FDIC. I asked, “Why would we go to a banking event?” He explained that it was a three-day (as I remember) annual fire conference held in Memphis, Tennessee, where a bunch of new ideas are presented and old ideas refined by a variety of fire officers and experts. I knocked him over getting in the car, and four of us students journeyed to Memphis.

I was a baby firefighter who was familiar only with a fire department that protected mostly a western suburban city. As we arrived and moved around Memphis and got to visit the Memphis Fire Department (MFD), I’m sure I looked like an owl because my eyes were bugging out of my head as we visited the very large central downtown fire station and saw big city apparatus with Underwriters staffing levels (Wow!); 2,000 gallon-per-minute pumpers with gigantic squirrel-tail suctions wrapped around the entire front of the rig; hard-core truck companies equipped with two Pompier ladders staffed with an army of firefighters; white-haired battalion chiefs who looked like senators, each with a 60-year-old driver who looked like a combination of poker player and gunfighter. In those days, the water appliances and many tools were made of brass. “Brass day” in the MFD had to be the day before we were there because everything looked a lot like shiny gold (I have a 1952 Mack pumper completely equipped with brass hardware, tools, and three deluge guns). I suppose my brass fetish was based on a 1959 Memphis flashback.

Before FDIC even started, it was worth the trip just to get to see a well-established, very traditional, big city fire department that presented a complete opposite profile than the one from which I came and knew. This was part of my beginning FDIC experience. Every year when I travel to the event, I feel the same excitement because I know I am going to leave a lot smarter if I will just act like a serious student. When I go home to do a self-debriefing on what I learned while I was attending class and what I was exposed to while hanging out with a mob of firefighters from all over for almost a week, the new ideas, concepts, and techniques become loaded into my noodle, and many of them become words to live by.

More separate fire service classes are taught by leading teachers, officers, and experts in one place than at any other event in our business. A challenge for a participant is to select which class to go to among the three or four that get checked in the program catalog, which I have done every time I have attended. After I got some FDIC seniority (as a student), I learned that the lessons involved a combination of watching and listening to both the teacher and my fellow students. The role of the instructor is to present an educational lesson that (hopefully) matches the course title. Most of the time, the material presented matches the advertisement; but sometimes, it doesn’t. That difference can be a very quirky educational adventure. Mostly, my experience has been that the conference instructors are picked from the varsity – no other event anywhere gathers the instructor quality as well as FDIC.

The longer I attended, the more I listened to the comments and watched the reactions of my fellow students. Some liked what the instructor was presenting because it matched what they agreed to learn that day: It was something they already believed or fit their personal frame of reference. They were receptive and showed it by nodding their heads and sending a positive message with their body language. If I agreed (yea!) with what was being presented, I also nodded my head and positively leaned forward. Sometimes, I disagreed with what the instructor was presenting; what was said was the opposite of what I believed or thought was correct. It took a long time for me to understand that the value of getting to attend an event where a variety of ideas, concepts, or programs are presented is that some of them align with my reality (or sometimes fantasy) and some do not. It took a while for me to get through the 4,000-pound concrete enclosing my brain that this disagreement was a signal that when I believe the teacher is from another planet, that is the time to shut up and listen because there was a lesson in staging if I were smart enough to learn it.

Lessons Learned

Another source of my conference education was the diversity of my fellow students, the source of a huge ongoing lesson in better understanding what is going on outside of my Fire Service World. A lot of that learning experience involves watching the diverse class reaction, some positive, some negative. If I agree and others disagree or if I disagree and others agree, I learned that the +/- opposites to my brilliance was a cue to put on my big eyes/ears, engage my brain, and pay attention. I normally hang out with folks who agree with me. I am most comfortable with the “homeys” in my gang. We all wear the same colors and shake or nod our heads at about the same time. When I get to FDIC, I have noticed (darn it) that there is no process where everyone who attends is selected and allowed to attend based on agreeing with me.

When I am with people who agree with me, I am very comfortable; when I am with the fools who disagree with me, I am uncomfortable. It took a while to understand that I don’t learn much when I am comfortable. When the situation, person, or philosophy confronts or challenges me, that can be the best test of what I believe. If my belief cannot stand up and explain itself to the outside world, I should go back to the drawing board and adjust it in any way that takes advantage of the outside exposure. If I am realistic (and control my ego) about my personal learning dynamics, I really have not completed the learning/understanding/applying process until and unless I have exposed my program package to something or somebody who challenges, disagrees with, or critically questions it. My learning program isn’t finished if it has not suffered through some review road rash. I have suffered from pushing a dumb plan that had everyone nodding their bobbleheads in a way that made me believe I was the man of the year and then having my plan go up in flames (sometimes literally) and suddenly waking up under a bus, where I was thrown. Don’t proceed until you have looked both ways twice.

When I think about FDIC, I automatically connect to about 50 years of getting to look in every direction possible. During that time, I have taken my new, probably untested (sometimes nutty) mental projects to the conference to test them. I also have on my idea detection unit as I attend class, hang out in the hallways, and socialize in the evening. Most of the time during the conference, I overdose on what I have seen, heard, and sensed so I record those ideas, concepts, or opinions in my shirt pocket notebook. I will routinely get a late-in-life historic jolt when I come across something I wrote a long time ago that is stuck in an old storage corner; in many cases, those ideas are directly connected to FDIC.

I guess my FDIC experience has caused me to understand that our ability to learn is directly connected to our social skills. The conference is where I can interact with many very diverse gang members from virtually all over the world who wear some unusual colors and speak in a dialect quite different from the language of my gang. The conference created a level of humility that replaced the feeling I had when I was young that anyone who didn’t agree with me was insane. It seems that the longer I attended, the smarter my instructors and fellow students became. The lesson was that many times the disease of certainty creates the need to get dumber before you can get smarter.

It is a rare experience for one person to have been the youngest person to attend and then, much later, be the oldest to attend. What a ride!

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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