A LESSON IN HUMANITY
The main ballroom of the Fire Department Instructors Conference was packed to the limit. More than 4,000 faces were focused on the stage. The social club fire in New York City had claimed 87 lives less than two weeks before. The newspaper articles appeared worldwide but the audience was filled with instructors who needed the facts and lessons “from the horse’s mouth.”
The assistant chief stood in place of his commissioner. He accepted a last-minute invitation to speak. He did an expert job of describing conditions on arrival and the traumatic operation of removing, identifying, and recording the meticulous data that often can get muddled in multiple-death fires. His visual aids were hurried but adequate. You could have heard a pin drop.
1 knew Frank Nastro for years. We fought fires together, played together, and remained good friends. But there was something wrong today. He had too many pauses (reflections) in his speech. He spoke haltingly and swallowed a lot. It wasn’t the crowd and it wasn’t the hightech presentation equipment. He’d handled this too often in the past.
As he spoke, he moved away from the podium. He strayed from his notes. He got closer and closer to the audience—so close that the tips of his shoes were out over the edge of the stage. He spoke of his first concern after size-up. He spoke in hushed tones. His sincerity enveloped him and reached out to hug the entire audience, drawing them close. And they knew it. I looked around—virtually all were leaning forward in their seats.
“My primary concern,” he said, “was for my firefighters. My second was that a sense of dignity should prevail through the difficult and heartwrenching task.” He spoke personally with each company before assigning job functions. He wanted them to know that he understood what he was asking them to do and that he cared.
The moderator came on stage as a signal that time was nearly over. Not for Frank, however. He leaned even closer to his audience. He told them of his ride home in his silent staff car, confident that he and his department had done their best, almost glad that he had been in command of the operation.
Then the story.
Continued on page 9.
A LESSON IN HUMANITY
“I go to 12:30 p.m. Mass every Sunday with my Doris,” he said. “But this day I went as soon as I got home. The homily drifted through my brain without much impression. I was praying for the deceased and for the firefighters. Then the church filled with the music of Amazing Grace, the hymn that accompanies many fire service funerals.
“I began to cry, alone, to myself. I couldn’t stop crying until long after the music stopped,” he shared.
As I watched through the lens of my camera, I wiped tears from my face. I looked as many, many others did the same. He was them and for that moment, they all were him. The silent impact rocked the room with its great lesson. Here stood a legend, a man who commanded that night the world’s largest and busiest fire department. He had a right to be detached, but all his life he avoided it on the fireground just as he avoided it now as a speaker.
The value of humanness in our service was blatant in those moments. In our job it’s so easy to get caught up in acronyms, committees, standards, bulletins, and experts who tell us how to operate and who have never laced a body bag. Management styles that fly through industry based on bottom line become buzzwords for speakers at some fire service conferences.
Here was a manager who commanded more human beings and equipment than you could ever imagine. He had dealt with the most trying situation of his career and relied on faith, heart, and concern for the individual. He had found that those qualities were the core of success in his command function. He did more for his fire service audience in 22 minutes than all the books and speeches on incident command could ever do. His lesson was etched into the hearts of more than 4,000 fire instructors.