ModelCityFirefighter.com’s newest article of Blowin’ Smoke features Kevin Shea, a retired firefighter from FDNY. We are very excited about this Blowin’ Smoke article and grateful for the opportunity to interview Shea on the site. I had the pleasure of meeting him earlier this year in Chicago at FireRescue International. He is about as humble as they come and is a wealth of knowledge. We hope you enjoy the interview.
Kevin Shea entered the volunteer fire service in 1978 at the age of 18. He was hired by FDNY at the age of 24, in 1984. During his years with FDNY, Shea served on an Engine Co. 227, 108 Truck in Brooklyn, and on Rescue 1 in Manhattan. He was injured in the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center, but was able to stay on light duty as an Instructor after 18 months of medical leave. After several surgeries, he had to retire in 1998. He has taught for FDNY, as well as the state and county of New York. He has also been an instructor in the private sector, and is currently a partner in Spec Rescue. He is also on the classroom staff for Fire Engineering and FDIC. When not involved with training, he pursues his other passions such as hunting, fishing, and organizes firefighter hunts.
How many years did you serve in the fire service?
When people ask me that, my first thought is the 14 years I spent in FDNY. My career was cut short due to a line of duty injury. I actually feel like I have been involved my whole adult life. I entered the fire service in 1978 when I was 18. I joined the Hicksville Volunteer FD where I lived. I worked for the local utility company as an underground lineman until 1984, when I entered the FDNY. I was hurt in 1993, but was able to stay with FDNY until 1998. During that time. I also taught for the County, State, and privately for a rescue training company. I am currently involved with Spec Rescue and Fire Engineering, so I feel that I have always been involved with the fire and rescue world, and hope I always will be.
Why did you want to join the fire service?
My Dad is a retired Capt. from FDNY. He worked during what is referred to as the “war years”. He worked in Harlem and the South Bronx. For six years, he was the Capt. of Engine 82. As a kid, I would go with my Dad to work whenever I could. He and his coworkers were my heroes growing up. Since childhood, I always wanted to be a fireman.
Is there any distinct way that you feel you made a difference?
Whenever something happens that brings positive attention, like a rescue caught on video, try to show the public that it is not the actions of just one person, but a team effort with many players they don’t see. Now that I am retired and still involved with training, I try to stress the importance of staying with the basics. I read once, and believe that “when you master the basic moves, they become advanced.” Keep it simple is not just a slogan to me. I practice this in my life. When I am at a class, I don’t focus on the super star students. I would like to pride myself on being able to bring the struggling students up to the level of the rest of the class, which really brings me contentment.
Did you accomplish any specific personal goals during your career?
My first and most important goal to me was the entrance exam. I studied, probably harder than necessary, and worked out every day for the physical. I am not a natural athlete, but I was told I missed the record on the physical test by three seconds. I got a 100 on the written, and a 100 on the physical. Only 43 guys had an average of 100 on that list, out of thousands, and I was very proud of that at the time. Then, my only goals were to work in a busy engine, a busy truck, and a rescue company. I eventually got to Eng 227, then 108 Truck, and from there to Rescue 1. Things happened while I was in these companies, and awards and medals were given, but those don’t mean anything. You can’t control what calls come in when you are working. Getting to those companies is the goal, then just stay prepared, and do your best when the time comes.
What is the biggest change that you have witnessed since joining the fire service?
There are two that stick out, one positive, and one not so much. I think firefighters today, both career and volunteer, are getting better training and have more information available than ever before. I think that is wonderful, and that is the positive. On a not so positive note, I am sorry to say that I think some firefighters seem to forget that they are public servants. A few of us seem to think we are so special, that the public serves us, but it does not. Hopefully, this is some kind of fad and will change with time. I loved serving the public, and miss my days in the firehouse very much. I can’t tell you how many times a kid would come to the firehouse in Brooklyn to get air for his bike tire or get a basketball filled with air. Being able to get in a window a few floors up with minimal damage for a food on the stove call just so the people didn’t lose the security of their door from being forced, those things go a long way and I miss all of it very much.
What do you believe is the biggest challenge that the fire service faces today?
Not sure which is the biggest, there are many. Keeping up with quality training has to be up there. What the public wants from us seems to keep changing, depending on where you are. We have to constantly adapt to the new challenges that new job descriptions bring, and train accordingly.
What is the best firehouse prank that you might have “allegedly” been involved in throughout your career?
To be honest, I did see some, but I was never one to play pranks on others. It just wasn’t my thing. Sorry, but that’s the truth. As for the ones I witnessed, it may be out of fashion, but I still believe what happens in the firehouse should stay there…
During your many years on the job, how were you able to push through the darkest of times?
I was in the firehouse during some stressed and dark times, but I found comfort in some of the simple tasks: Repacking things such as rope, scuba equipment. It didn’t matter. You’re not bothered by anyone if you’re working. If you need some alone time, that is a good time to repeat simple tasks. They are necessary anyway. Doing simple chores repeatedly, checking masks, or running saws make you more proficient and it is mindful. When I was off duty, I found fishing or surf casting on Long Island where I lived always cleared my head. I have replaced the fishing with a combination of fishing and hunting nowadays. I run hunts for firefighters now, and I found it is a great stress reliever for a lot of us. A lot of stories are shared on these hunts, and it helps to know you have other people to talk to who have experienced similar situations.
If you could provide some of the younger generation of firefighters with a few “words of wisdom,” what would they be?
I have a few thoughts that I hope the new guys and girls find the relevant. First, remember that we are Public Servants. We serve the public, they don’t serve us. That being said, I have to say I have found that keeping that thought in my head has helped me to keep my attitude straight in many situations. I am not here to judge others or question their needs, I am here only to respond and serve the best I can. The citizens I served for pulled that box for all kinds of reasons, and I liked to think I was at least a help anytime I was called. Whether it was a fire, working job, or just food on the stove, they needed help. I took pride in trying to gain access at a food on the stove call while trying to do as little damage as possible. Find a means of access that keeps the integrity of the door so it can be locked afterwards, and it helps in protecting their belongings. Sometimes people would be frustrated and may attempt take it out on you. Learn not to take it personal because when you are called, you are not always seeing people at their best. Cut them some slack. When we are first hired, we are full of enthusiasm. Try not to lose it. You will hear old timers always talking about how things have changed. I have found that in the big picture and talking to my Dad, things haven’t really changed, but we do. People get stale or burnt out, and don’t let it happen to you. It may sound like preaching, but I believe everything I have said. With the exception of my family, nothing I have put so much effort into has returned double that in pride, satisfaction, and the feeling that I have truly made a difference in people’s lives like the Fire Department. I never felt like I had a moral dilemma at work or had to compromise myself in order to do a good job as a fireman. It is the best fit I have ever experienced in my life.
For those unfamiliar with your rope rescue incident that was highly publicized, do you care to briefly recall some of the events that occurred that day?
Back in May, 1991, I was involved in a roof rope rescue that got a lot of attention. It was caught live by several cameras, so it made the news and realty show circuit for a while. I would like to tell you what lessons have stuck with me since that day.
Train hard and often, because your life and the life of others may, and probably will, one day depend on it. Things are not always like the training academy or the drills your officer may be giving. There often are no time outs or do overs. Things can move fast, situations are sometimes unforgiving, and basic skills should be so ingrained in your subconscious that under stress or when you’re injured, you are almost on auto pilot. Certain moves should almost be reflexive. When I was in 108 Truck, before Rescue 1, I had a senior man named Mike Higgins. Mike was always enthusiastic, willing to train, and he never slacked in the firehouse. Many times at work, I could be tired from working second jobs and raising a family. It is easy to fall into the routine of not drilling any more than you have to. Mike was not about that at all! He would drill all day and night if he could and made sure I was training too. We practiced the roof rope often, and we drilled in bad weather or if the officer was busy. Mike would just have some of us repeat our roof rope drill down the pole hole. That drill is embedded deep in me, and when the time came to perform, it was no problem. The day the rescue was performed, things were not going well. There was no anchor point and only one rope for two rescues. By then, I knew the basic evolution by heart and by not having to think about it, it was easier to give attention to the other problems. This helped it all work out. I owe a large part of the success of that day to Mike Higgins, and even though he wasn’t there…his training was.
Are you still involved with the fire service today?
Yes, I am. I am a partner in a training company, SpecRescue. I also volunteer at FDIC for a week every year, and I run hunting trips. In the future, I look to run fishing trips for firefighters as well. I started a hunting group on Facebook called Firefighters Hunting Club. I still love being around the firefighters, and I probably always will. If any of the readers would like to get in touch with me, they can reach me on Facebook or by e-mail at email@example.com.