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An interview with FDIC 2008 keynote speaker Mike Gagliano

Published on 1 April 2008
An interview with FDIC 2008 keynote speaker Mike Gagliano

Diane Feldman, executive editor of Fire Engineering and conference director of FDIC, sat down with Wednesday Opening Ceremony Keynote Speaker Captain Mike Gagliano, Seattle (WA) Fire Department.

DF: What does keynoting at FDIC mean to you?

MG: There is no real way to fully convey how honored I am to speak before the thousands of heroes who will be assembled at FDIC.  When I was informed of my selection, I was speechless.  The many giants of our service who have addressed the FDIC came to mind and I was humbled beyond words. FDIC represents the best the fire service has to offer and plays a key role in defining how the fire service trains and what our vision for the future should be.  The firefighters in attendance are the change makers and visionaries.  My goal is to speak from the heart to this gathering of men and women whom I admire and believe in. It is truly one of the highlights of my career in the fire service.

DF: How long have you been teaching the fire service? How did you get into instructing?

MG: My love of teaching and training has been with me from the outset of my 22-year career.  It was a staple of how we trained in the Air Force that everyone conducted classes and instructed their fellow firefighters.  Once I arrived in Seattle, there were numerous opportunities to teach, and I've tried to contribute wherever I could.  I don't honestly see how any firefighter can continue in this job without taking some time to teach.  Whether it is done on an informal level with the new firefighters who come to your companies, ongoing mentoring by veterans, or more formal training in structured drills/classes, it is the lifeblood of the fire service.  Passing on what you know, seeking new knowledge that you then share, or working to get better every day are the hallmarks of the professional firefighter.  Some say "Those who can't do must teach."  In the fire service, everyone must do--and be able to teach how they did it--or we stagnate.  Those who know what to do and are incapable of or unwilling to share or teach that knowledge are missing one of the true joys of the fire service.

DF: How many years have you been attending FDIC? What do you look forward to at FDIC each year?

MG: I've attended FDIC many times over the past 15 years and have never come away disappointed.  The biggest challenge for any attendee is which classes to choose when the there are so many choices and such excellent instructors.  FDIC always recharges my batteries.  It is an event that reminds you there are wonderful and dedicated firefighters all over this country working hard to fulfill the mission of the fire service.  The conference oozes with pride and passion. It represents all that is good and right in our beloved profession.  There are remembrances, celebrations, and a steady stream of challenges to do our job better.  I cannot adequately convey the degree of impact spending time with 28,000 brothers and sisters from across the country will have on you.  I can only hope you get the chance to experience it for yourself.

DF: What message would you like to give to a first-time attendee, or to someone who has never been to FDIC?

MG: I would encourage all attendees to take full advantage of the training that is offered.  There will be ample time to play, socialize, visit the vendors, and relax.  What really makes your time at FDIC memorable is engaging with the instructors, soaking in the incredible knowledge from the classes, and returning to your department better than when you left.  Go out at night and have a great time with your buddies.  But do your best to be ready to go the next day for the instructional periods.  There is not a gathering of so many brilliant instructors like this anywhere in the world.  Take some time to invest in your career.  Swing by the bookstore and pick up a resource or two.  You may even get to chat with some of the legends of the fire service like Alan Brunacini, John Mittendorf, and Frank Montagna.  It is a blast.  Once you've experienced the transformation that occurs from being tutored by the best, you'll be hooked for the rest of your career.

DF: What do you think is the most pressing issue in the fire service, why, and what can be done about it?

MG: Two issues stand out in my mind.  The first is the fact that firefighters continue to routinely expose themselves to smoke.  Air management is just now starting to be viewed as a critical component of strategic and tactical considerations, but it is still slow in coming.  Every sober firefighter now knows that the smoke they are breathing is a toxic, incapacitating, and carcinogenic mess.  Yet somehow chief and company officers are still content with letting the firefighters they say they love breathe the smoke as part of a standard operating procedure.  My partners and I are committed to proclaiming from the rooftops that true leaders in the fire service will adopt the Rule of Air Management and manage their air like they do every other resource on the fireground.  This will take guts, as it may mean you'll be unpopular in some firehouses.  It will also mean your firefighters will be safer, be more effective, and have a better chance of not ending their careers asphyxiated in some structure or dying of cancer.

This leads to the second issue, and that is leadership.  There is a groundswell of discontent over what has been passing for leadership training in the fire service.  The braggadocios and divisive model that separates firefighters into camps, pits them against each other, and provides no true vision for departments as a whole has been weighed and found wanting.  I believe a new vision is needed that puts less emphasis on our differences, focuses our efforts on a humble/service-based leadership, and truly puts firefighters first.  Firefighters are tired of watching their leaders scramble for the next promotion, disregard firefighter safety, and put their paychecks before their people.  Simple answers such as "Do the right thing" are ringing hollow, as many fire service leaders seem clueless as to what the "right thing" is.  This challenge is going to have tremendous impact on the future of the fire service, and it's a battle we have to win.
"Remember Who You Are"

Do you remember the joy you felt on receiving the news that you'd been accepted by the fire department?  Does the pride of putting on your first uniform, graduating from the recruit academy, and getting your first run loom large in your memory?  How about those initial groups of firefighters who became your family and shared their knowledge and skills to make you better? The honor and pride we share for the profession that has chosen us finds itself the target of a subtle but vicious attack.  Our history, culture, and values are coming under fire and causing doubt, disillusionment, and compromise.  This is a call to challenge those who would minimize or denigrate our calling.  It is a reminder to recall the burn in your heart to be counted worthy of being called a firefighter.  As the forces bent on keeping you from the life and career that were once very clear to you, rage on; the clarion call rings loud and clear: REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE!

Mike Gagliano has 22 years of fire/crash/rescue experience with the Seattle (WA) Fire Department and the United States Air Force.  He is the captain of training and is a member of the Seattle Fire Department Operational Skills Enhancement Development Team.  He teaches across the country on air management, firefighter safety, and fireground strategy and tactics.  He is a member of the FDIC Associate Advisory Board and co-author of the book Air Management for the Fire Service (Fire Engineering, 2008).  He has co-authored numerous articles for Fire Engineering and is on the Board of Directors for the Cyanide Poisoning Treatment Coalition.

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