This edition of Blowin’ Smoke on The “Model City” Firefighter features FDNY (Retired) Battalion Chief John Salka.
Battalion Chief John Salka served for 33 years with the FDNY and was the Battalion Commander of the 18th battalion in the Bronx. During his career with the FDNY, Chief Salka worked in some of the departments most active units including both rescue and squad companies in the special operations command. He is a nationally known lecturer and seminar presenter and has presented at the Firehouse Expo in Baltimore, the FDIC in Indianapolis, the NY State Association of Fire Chiefs show and many other venues. He is the author of three books “First In Last Out Leadership Lessons from the New York Fire Department” 2004, “The Engine Company” which was published in early 2009 and “Five Alarm Leadership” which was published in 2013. He received the 2001 FDIC Training Achievement Award for his Get Out Alive firefighter survival training program and travels extensively training firefighters throughout the 50 states in tactics, strategy, leadership and safety& survival. Chief Salka has worked for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health with the Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program and has presented programs for fire service, corporate and military audiences throughout the United States and Canada. He can be reached at email@example.com. or 914-755-6866.
How many years have you served in the fire service, and has/is anyone else in your family on the job?
I have no family members in the fire service yet, but two of my sons are on the current FDNY firefighter list. I began my fire service career in 1976 when I joined the Mineola (NY) fire department on Long Island. I worked with great firefighters and officers and that experience is what convinced me that the fire service was what I wanted to do. I stayed with Mineola for a few years and then moved to Florida to attend the Florida State Fire Academy with my friend and fellow firefighter Rich Bonitz. After we graduated (200 hrs) we applied for and were hired by the Titusville Florida fire department. That was quite an experience and I stayed there for a couple of years until I was called to join the FDNY.
What was your drive to make you want to join the fire service?
After spending a couple of years in the Mineola FD, I knew that the fire service was fun, interesting, challenging and the people there, the other firefighters, seemed just like me.
Is there any distinct way that you have tried to make a difference to either the fire service as a whole or the community you serve?
After being a member of several different fire departments, both volunteer and career, I recognized that training was the most important aspect of any fire company. I can still remember the Monday night drills at the Mineola FD and how interesting each drill was. As the years went by and after getting on the FDNY, I moved upstate to Orange County where I once again joined the local volunteer FD in South Blooming Grove, NY. I soon became the training officer there and also was appointed as a NY State Fire Instructor for Orange County. Getting into training was a turning point in my fire service career.
Do you currently have any specific personal goals you would like to accomplish during your career, and have you completed any of those already?
I have pretty much accomplished most of the goals I had. I studied and did well on my civil service promotional exams and was promoted to Lieutenant, Captain and Battalion Chief during my 33 years with the FDNY. I went through the ranks with the SBGFD as well and was able to have an impact on that department as well.
What is the biggest change that you have witnessed since joining the fire service?
I’m not quite sure. There have been many changes and many things are still the same. The one item that I am happy about is that training is taken much more seriously and conducted more frequently in many fire departments. The internet and all of the sites and resources available there make training easier and more interesting than in the past.
What do you believe is the biggest challenge that the fire service faces today?
I think the biggest challenge the fire service faces today is keeping their doors open to everyone. By everyone, I mean folks that have something to offer. Specifically, I see the fire service increasing its entry requirements with college degrees and credits and not accepting alternate or equivalent qualifications. College is great but there are LOTS of great people out there with experience in the trades and the military that are not being considered or even allowed to take an exam or apply for the positions.
The Brotherhood! When times are bad we tend to circle the wagons in the fire service and take care of ourselves and our communities. This effort is usually most visible at the company or battalion level where we all know each other and lend a hand when necessary.
With so many of our firefighters dying each year in the Line of Duty, what are some of the things you do to help ensure “Everyone Goes Home”?
I tell people at almost all of my seminar programs that they should not worry about how many firefighters die each year in the line of duty. Don’t be concerned that the numbers have “gone up” this year. There is nothing we can do about that number. What I do tell them to concentrate on is their people, their shift and their department. Keep your focus local. Keep the three people that ride on your fire engine safe. Make sure the firefighters in your battalion are well trained and physically fit.
If you could provide some of the younger generation of firefighters with a few “words of wisdom,” what would they be?
Study! By this, I mean that they should be a “student” of the job. Every day, every shift, every drill night, learn something new and ask questions. Go to the big fire service shows and listen to the stories and lessons that are being presented there. Study, learn and read!
What is the best firehouse prank that you might have “allegedly” been involved in throughout your career?
When I was a young firefighter on the lower east side of Manhattan in 11 Truck, they had a funny prank that was practiced almost every day. In the kitchen, they tied a furry raccoon tail with a piece of fishing line to the inside of the kitchen cabinet. They laid the tail on the shelf and closed the cabinet door. When the next guy came in for a cup of coffee and grabbed the cabinet handle to open the door, the furry tail would jump off the shelf right at them as the door swung open. That was funny! Sometimes a guy would jump and scream and then re-set the tail back in the cabinet for the next unsuspecting guy, only to open it again themselves and get surprised again.
We would like to thank Chief Salka for taking the time to answer a few questions and share his opinions on these questions. We are always looking for individuals that are interested in being featured in a Blowin’ Smoke article. If you are interested or you know someone who you would like to recommend, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.