Blowin’ Smoke with Brandon Roark

This is the very first post for the Blowin’ Smoke column here at The Model City Firefighter. These posts are to let my readers learn about members of the fire service across this great country that are our brothers and sisters. I hope to give an insight into the lives of others that share the same passion for the fire service as we all do. I would like to thank Brandon for participating and helping make this post possible.

 

Brandon is a Firefighter/Paramedic, TRT Specialist, and a member of the Honor Guard with the City of South Bend (Indiana) Fire Department. He is currently serving at Firehouse No. 2 on the “A” shift. He serves with a unique combination of men that try his patience, complain daily and enjoy insulting each other with every breath they take. It is the best firehouse in the city! The men are friends and despite the constant bickering and insulting banter, the men are as good as any can be.
Brandon also serves as the Division Chief of Training with the Washington Township Vol. Fire Department. Brandon is an Instructor for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, Fire Training Division where he loves instructing recruit academies, and instructor development programs. Brandon has been active in course development and implementation for both the Firefighter I/II programs as well developing an online Instructor I program.
Brandon is married to a beautiful woman that is both tolerant and patient with his career, the numerous lonely nights he is not home and the countless hours he volunteers. Together, they have a blind Siberian Husky and an overweight kitty cat.
Brandon is the luckiest man alive!
How many years have you served in the fire service? 16 years

Why did you join the fire service? When I turned 14, I received a letter from the local volunteer fire department about starting an Explorer Post. I joined the Explorer Post with my older brother, and it has been the single most important decision and “game changer” in my life. I was introduced to not only the fire service, but more importantly the culture and life style of a fireman. Because of the passion that the men of the Abingdon Fire Department fostered in me, I have never done anything else. I am honored that I am still welcomed back with open arms every time I come home to visit.

Is there any distinct way that you have tried to make a difference? When I was a fireman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I served under a hard-nosed captain who held his men responsible for knowing AND performing their jobs. He had a passion for the fire service unlike any I had ever witnessed. It was contagious.

Working for Captain Ben Fleagle (some of you are familiar with his work via www.leatherhead109.com) was not the easiest assignment I have had. Actually it was hands down, without a doubt, the hardest! I remember waking up in the morning dreading going to work. He was a hard captain, and his expectations were so high I wondered if I could ever live up to his expectations.

Captain Fleagle with the crew from Engine 11 enjoying a traditional cigar and cup o’ joe…
at 30 below zero

I didn’t know it then, but he was changing who I was and more importantly who I would become. I am who I am today because of having served under him. The cap’n influence extended well beyond the firehouse, it entered into my daily life. You see, Ben wasn’t just interested in my success as a fireman; he was interested in my success as a man. I will never forget the conversation that we had when I had to make a decision to either stay in Alaska or chase a girl to Indiana. He was and continues to be interested my career and personal life. Watching how he interacts with his family (he has twins) and witnessing his humility when he acknowledged and accepted responsibility for his faults spoke volumes about his character. Prior to serving with Ben, I hadn’t had much of a “fatherly” role model. Ben was there to provide me direction when I needed it most…I have never told him that. I need too.

If I can do for some young fireman only a tenth of what Ben has done for me, then my career will have been a success. Incidentally, that girl that I chased to Indiana? She is now my wife.

Have you accomplished any specific personal goals during your career? I think it is safe to say that I have a fair amount of arrogance about me.This arrogance drives me to continuously seek more education.  I never did like the feeling of being on a call and not having the knowledge to act. I never have like feeling “under-qualified”. It was that drive (or arrogance) that drove me to become a paramedic. I also completed Swift Water Technician School as well as Hazardous Materials Technician School despite a dislike of water and chemistry because of the same desire to be fully prepared for my job.

Since becoming a Division Chief my goals have started to shift to administrative education. In the next segment of my career I would like to complete a graduate degree and enroll into the EFO program…This is all secondary to becoming a father and better managing my time with my wife and (hopefully) future family.

What is the biggest change that you have witnessed since joining the fire service? Loss of the “mentor”.

Since the inclusion of the internet into the daily lives of firefighters we are slowly losing our “Mentor”, or at the very least they are changing form. Young firemen today are going to the web for insight and instruction…and there isn’t any shortage of it out there, both useful and marginal. I am not trying to imply that the web is a bad thing, but there is certainly a loss of the mentor/protégé interaction.

Additionally there seems to a shift to profit driven education vs. quality mentors passing the craft on. I never had to pay the crusty old guy in the firehouse for him to share his knowledge and experience. You can do a search online right now and find an insane amount of “firefighter training groups” that will charge copious amounts of cash to teach a class on the most basic of skills. “You want a forcible entry class, ok no problem, that will be $400.00 per student please.” Where are the Ben Fleagles? Where are the Earl Morphews and Mike Stevens’es…Where have all the mentors gone?

Deputy Chief Mike Stevens, one of my early mentors.

 Take a moment to think about the guys and gals in your firehouse? Who are the “go to” persons that you could call upon to do an impromptu class on performing a rescue from an upper floor? Can’t think of a guy right off hand?? That’s a problem. If you do know a one, then you have the responsibility to learn everything they have to offer and pass it on to the new probie, FREE OF CHARGE!

What do you believe is the biggest challenge that the fire service faces today? Structure. Colin Powell recently addressed this issue at TEDx-Mid-Atlantic (http://youtu.be/NhYnouvrG_8). He discusses the need of a “Good Start” for a both a soldier’s success as we of the success of a child. This same philosophy should be applied to the fire service. If your department is led by leaders with no structure, then your firefighters will have no structure. Lack of structure yields complicacy and contempt for the leadership. Take a moment to watch his short presentation and relate it to yourself.

During your many years on the job, how were you able to push through the darkest of times? The realization that we (as I tell my students) are in the “bad day” business. It is our duty to respond to and attempt to mitigate someone’s bad day. That is what we do.

My day is full of task. I go from one task to the next without much regard for it beyond the end of the call. These tasks could be human or intangible. During my day I could be tasked with the resuscitation of  a cardiac arrest victim or tasked with performing roof ventilation at a commercial fire. They are both just tasks that I try to complete to the best of my ability as quickly as I can… I don’t dwell on them when they are over, however the instructor in me will extract “teachable moments” as they are experienced, but that’s it.

My worst days at work have been when I have learned about the death of fireman that I have known and/or served with. In all instances that this has happened, it was beyond my control. The notification of Earl Morphew’s death was probably the worst. It was totally unexpected. There was a part of me that felt like we were kindred souls. We had both worked at the Ski Haus in our youth (Abingdon Va.), we were both firemen/paramedics and we both loved the outdoors. I saw a lot of myself in Earl. To this day, I still want to be like him.

Click here to read Remembering A Fallen Brother: Earl Morphew

I still remember when the call came. I had just completed morning checks on my rig when my brother rang my cellphone.  The sun hadn’t even come up. When my brother told that Earl had been killed, it was like someone had kicked me square in the chest…The remaining 23 hours of my shift were the longest in my career.

Days later, when Earl was laid to rest, I was reminded just how great this job is. How tight of a community we share and just how special this brotherhood can be.

If you could provide some of the younger generation of firefighters with a few “words of wisdom,” what would they be? I would tell them the same thing that Capt. Fleagle told me over and over and over again. “I am NOT here for ME, I am here for WE, and WE are here for THEM”.