Blowin’ Smoke with Don Catenacci



catenacci5My name is Don Catenacci, and I retired from the Wauwatosa Wisconsin Fire Department last July as a Firefighter/EMT after 15 years. Prior to that I served for 7 years as a civilian Crash Fire Rescue Firefighter for the WiANG 128th ARW in Milwaukee.

I am currently a member of 2 Paid on Call fire departments. One in Wyocena, Wisconsin where I am a Lieutenant and the Training Officer, and the other in Rio, Wisconsin where I am the training officer.

I was also a member of the Columbus, Wisconsin Paid on Call Fire Department, and served as a part-time relief fire officer for the Maple Bluff Fire Department.


I have an Associate Degree in Fire Science and hold certifications as a Fire Instructor 1, Fire Officer1, Firefighter II, Fire Apparatus Driver Operator, EMT-B, Haz-Mat Tech, in Wisconsin. Through the WiANG I was certified through IFSAC as a Firefighter II, Airport Rescue Fire Fighter, Fire Apparatus Driver Operator both Structural and ARFF.

I am a Part-time Fire Training instructor for Madison Area Technical College, and also for Blackhawk Technical College. I also taught for 2 years full-time in Fire Training for Moraine Park technical College.

I am married to my lovely and very supportive wife Beth. I have 2 sons, one who is a member of the 2 POC FDs I am on, and the other working as a Water Park supervisor at a Wisconsin Dells resort. I also have 2 step daughters one working as an Esthetician, the other is still in high school.

My hobbies include woodworking, collecting firefighting memorabilia, including old fire text books, tending to my 1974 Mack CF engine, vegetable gardening, cooking, movies, target shooting, and traveling with my wife

Catenacci and his son, Vinnie.

Catenacci and his son, Vinnie.

How many years have you served in the fire service, and has/is anyone else in your family on the job?

I have 36 years in the fire service, spread between 2 career, 1 part-time, and 3 volunteer/Paid on Call FDs.

My Dad was a volunteer firefighter, my brother was a volunteer firefighter, my next younger sister was a volunteer for about 5 years firefighter and a career airport firefighter, and my oldest son is a member of 2 POC FDs.

What was your drive to make you want to join the fire service?

I hung out at the firehouse with my Dad every chance I could when he was a volunteer in Winfield, Illinois. I always thought it was cool that he was a firefighter. It seemed exciting to me and he liked it so much that I wanted to be just like him.

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?

I have tried to be a leader in training from early on in my time as a volunteer firefighter. I pushed for minimum standards for training and encouraged other firefighters to get all the training they could.

During my time as chief we increased our training budget and encouraged firefighters to go outside the department for training and to bring back what they learned and share that knowledge.

As a fire training instructor for the tech college for 33 years i always looked at my task as an instructor as a 2 way street. When I went in to a fire department I always tell the students that while I know they are they to learn from me that if I don’t learn at least one thing from them I wasn’t paying attention. That enthusiasm is contagious, you show it and it encourages and excites others.

catenacci1Do you currently have any specific personal goals you would like to accomplish during your career, and have you completed any of those already?

Well on the career side I recently retired so I made one of my goals come true. Make it through my career Physically, Mentally, and Financially, capable of enjoying retirement.

One of my personal goals was to try to always stay on top of changes, tools and techniques in the fire service. I was fortunate in my career FD to have some VERY good and progressive company officers that knew the value of staying sharp and current and that fed into my desire to stay current myself. Part of that is passing on to the probies those extra little tricks of the trade that you picked up all the way.

Now as a member of 2 Paid On Call FDs my personal goal is to try to make them the best they can possibly be through my position as training officer. Again, knowledge is really only useful if you can pass it on so others can utilize it too.

What is the biggest change that you have witnessed since joining the fire service?

There have been several.

I would have to say PPE and the culture of the fire service.

PPE went from rubber coats to the latest high tech fabrics that offer superior protection. Bunker pants replaced 3/4 boots. Hoods came into use and have progressed with better materials offering far more protection. Gloves that finally fit and offer far better dexterity. SCBA has come a million miles from 1800 psi steel bottles to lightweight carbon fiber bottles.

The culture of the fire service seems to be at war with itself. We have the old school and the new wave safety crowd. I find myself probably leaning more towards old school but applying the knowledge of building construction into that to allow decision making of go no go, versus automatically writing buildings off because of construction type.

catenacciWhat do you believe is the biggest challenge that the fire service faces today?

There are many challenges but I feel the greatest is staffing. This problem hits both sides of the fire service, career and volunteer, although in different ways.

On the career side we have city managers and politicians looking for ways to cut the budget and the fire service always seems to be near the top of the list. The realization that when a major emergency hits, or multiple emergencies hit, those bare bones crews are overwhelmed early just doesn’t seem to sink in. Study after study has shown that engine crews with 4 or 5, and ladder crews with 5 or 6, are much more efficient and safer. But other than a few hold out bigger cities this is far from the norm today. The saddest part is it will continue and get worse long before it gets better. I am not sure what the answer is here because the winds of political change seem to be at odds and firefighter support for politicians doesn’t always mean return support for firefighters from politicians at budget time.

On the volunteer side many areas struggle with recruiting and retaining members. Life is busier with work and kids activities that many don’t believe they have the time, or simply have no interest in serving as a volunteer firefighter. I know of several volunteer fire departments that have rosters of 30 or more where when the guys start taking the truth is they have 5 to maybe 15 guys that show up and do the majority of the work and training. They treat it seriously and want to be prepared so they can serve the community the best they can and equally importantly, they want to know everything they can to keep themselves safe. Again, the answer here is difficult. Most communities with volunteer fire departments can’t afford full time staffing, even during the day, to cover those shortages. Incentives like pay for calls and training, free uniforms, awards banquets, and so on only go so far and often fail to motivate people to join or stay. I think the loss of volunteers is more a cultural shift into more emphasis on work, kids, and personal recreation and less on community mindedness and service. I believe one of the biggest things is projecting a professional image to the public. Seriously, who wants to belong to a group that looks like nothing more than a bunch of good old boys playing with fire trucks? Secondly, be welcoming to new members. Mentor them, teach them, TALK to them. Don’t give them gear and say welcome aboard and then leave them hanging. People that join want to feel included and involved. People walk away when those needs aren’t met.

During all of your years on the job, how were/are you able to push through the darkest of times?

The support of my Brothers and Sisters on the various departments I have been on have helped me in those occasions. As well as the support of family and friends understanding the need to vent at times.

catenacci3With 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 am a stickler for proper use of PPE and SCBA. The fact that toxic gases remain long after the fire is out demands SCBA be worn during overhaul until we sample the air and prove it is safe to breath.

On both of the POC FDs where I am training officer we have been doing intensive training on RIT and “Save Yourself” training. We have done a joint RIT training and will continue to do more of this.

Just as important though is a strong knowledge of building construction and fire behavior. Buildings don’t hold up to fire like they used to and add to that the increased flammability of home furnishings and it can be a one/two combo knock-out punch if we aren’t paying attention. This doesn’t mean I believe in automatically writing off buildings or in suicidal charges into fully involved buildings. A thorough size-up determines whether we should enter or not.

If you could provide some of the younger generation of firefighters with a few “words of wisdom,” what would they be?

Listen more than you talk. The veterans, the “Old Guys” can teach you much if you are willing to listen and learn. Ask questions, relevant questions. Learn the job, know your rig, know your tools and equipment, train on your own if there is nothing going on. You can work on ropes and knots, donning and doffing your gear, SCBA emergency procedures, and so much more all by yourself. Never stop reading the fire magazines, internet fire web sites, and fire text books. Learning about the fire service NEVER stops until you leave the fire service. But probably the biggest is PAY ATTENTION. Don’t let a momentary slip of awareness get you hurt or killed.

What is the best firehouse prank that you might have “allegedly” been involved in throughout your career?

I guess, I probably was the victim of more than I pulled. So I will leave this one alone!!