Blowin’ Smoke with Chief Rich Gasaway


This Blowin’ Smoke edition features an individual that I’m sure many of you are familiar with. Chief Gasaway is very passionate about the fire service, and is out on the road sharing his message on a daily basis. He recently taught here at the Northeast TN Fire Rescue Conference in Sullivan County. Several of my co-workers were able to attend the course, and it was an honor having him now featured on the site. I think this is one article that you will be able to read and take several things away from to pass along. – The Model City Firefighter

blowinsmokeheadergasawayI’m Rich Gasaway and I am retired now, though I have to laugh as I write that because I am anything but retired. I’ll get to that shortly. I held positions of firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, Lieutenant, Captain, Assistant Chief and Fire Chief in six emergency services organizations in West Virginia, Ohio and Minnesota.

In 2004 I embarked on a journey to earn a PhD and did my research on the cognitive neuroscience of decision making. That sounds kind of heady but, essentially, I researched how first responders use situational awareness as the foundation for decision making while operating in high risk, high consequence, dynamically changing, time compressed environments. My findings on the barriers to situational awareness have now been featured in over 350 books, book chapters, journal articles and blog posts.

The live programs I’ve created that teaches situational awareness and decision making have been presented to more than 43,000 first responders and I have presented audiences on four continents. In 2011 I launched my blog, Situational Awareness Matters ( It has enjoyed over a million visits and the visitors have downloaded my 200+ articles over 4 million times. Visitors can become a member for free and receive a free monthly newsletter (and a special report when they sign up). There are over 5,000 members in the SAMatters community from 156 countries.

So, I’m not really retired. I prefer to think of it as I “graduated” from the fire service and now get to teach all the lessons I learned during my career (and in my doctoral research).

Some people call me “Chief Gasaway.” Some call me “Dr. Gasaway.” And some call me “Dr./Chief Gasaway.” Truth be told… I just prefer “Rich.”

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

I started in the fire service in 1979 (just out of high school) and I served for 30 years. I’d like to think I’m still serving but not in the formal capacity as a member of one individual department. Rather, I am serving the broader fire service with my situational awareness message.

My brother (Randy) also served as a volunteer firefighter. His career has taken him away from the fire service now. My brother-in-law, Rick Gutwald, has served as a career firefighter in my hometown (Weirton, West Virginia) for more than 30 years. And I met my bride of 30+ years in the fire service. She was a member when I joined. I fell in love at first sight.

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

This is something I share at the beginning of all my programs so for those who’ve attended one, you already know the answer to this question. I was a senior in high school when we had a fire at my house. My parents weren’t home and my brother and I were having a small gathering of friends at our house (that sounds better than “Party” because we weren’t allowed to have parties when our parents weren’t home). The fire department came and did such an amazing job that I knew right then and there I wanted to serve others as a firefighter and make them feel as good as the Weirton Heights Volunteer firefighters made us feel on that cold night in January, 1979.

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?

Without trying to sound religious, I feel I was called to a higher purpose that led me to enroll in the PhD program and to discover the things I did. I was quite amazing with the findings of my research and it made me realize how lucky I had been as a fireground commander. That’s not exactly how you want to be feeling after serving 20 years in command positions.

When I published my findings and gave my first presentation on the topic, I knew right away from the feedback that I my findings were going to help firefighters, officers and commanders make better decisions under stress and save lives.

To clarify, I don’t teach strategy and/or tactics. There are lots of great programs and great instructors out there that do. I teach how to develop and maintain situational awareness and tie it together with how to make high quality decisions under stress. That is where my opportunity to make the greatest impact on the fire service is.

gasaway2Do you currently have any specific personal goals you would like to accomplish during your career, and have you completed any of those already?

I am a huge goal setter. In fact, I publish my goals on my website because it makes me more accountable to them. When I launched the SAMatters website I set a goal to write 100 blog articles in 100 days. I am pretty good at writing but that was a monumental task. I wanted to push out the maximum amount of content as quickly as I could. I didn’t meet that goal. I only published 94 articles in the first 100 days but it got the site launched and some great content into the hands of first responders. There are now over 200 articles on the website (all free to read and download). I publish a new article every Friday.

In May (2014) I set a goal to launch a podcast radio show. In my travels I have had hundreds of firefighters share with me the most amazing stories of heroism and close calls. I have been very inspired by those stories but I always thought it was tragic that these stories were not being shared with the broader fire service audience. So the podcast has given a platform and a voice to these responders. They have shared some amazing stories in the 30+ episodes that have aired. I tie in situational awareness lessons and do some teaching on the podcast show too. (New episodes come out every Tuesday and you can subscribe to SAMatters Radio on iTunes and Stitcher Radio). There are also links to the episodes on the SAMatters website.

Some goals I’m working on currently include: Re-launching my website with a new theme that will make accessing the content, online programs, books and videos easier. I will soon be offering a premium membership on my website for those who want to take their situational awareness knowledge, skills and abilities to a higher level. I suspect those attracted to the premium content will be company officers, command officers and training officers but it will be available to anyone.

I am going to be expanding my offerings of online classes as well. While I am very blessed to have the opportunity to teach so many live events, I cannot sustain my travel schedule. In 2013 I presented 183 programs. In 2014, I will present 160+ and 2015 is shaping up to be just as busy. I’m not complaining. I love connecting with live audiences. But I can’t be everywhere for everyone who wants the message. The online programs will be an affordable way for departments to train all their members on this critical topic.

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

Clearly it’s been the changes in building construction, contents (i.e., plastics) and subsequently fire dynamics. Sadly, many departments are fighting 21st century fires with 20th century tactics. I know change is hard. However, too many firefighters are getting hurt or killed in a flashover or building collapse. We need to change our paradigm about how we fight fires. It’s ok to ASSUME risk (in fact every call has lots of risk for us to assume). However, it’s not acceptable to CREATE risk and some of our tactics are doing just that.

gasaway1What do you believe is the biggest challenge that the fire service faces today?

My answer to this may appear to be selfish and myopic, but from my travels I’d say our biggest opportunity is teaching firefighters how to be good decision makers and resilient problem solvers. Many training programs focus heavily on the tactics and hands-on work (the “how” to do the job). We’re not spending enough time making smart firefighters that understand the “why” and “when” of the job. This can lead to automatons (robotic responses) that can get firefighters into A LOT of trouble.

For example, in live fire training, instructors spend a lot of time teaching firefighters how to advance hose lines and perform searches. Very little time is spent on teaching the process of how to make the “go” or “no go” decision. In fact, most of the time, in training, the decision is ALWAYS “go” and that decision not made by the student. The instructor makes the decision. This is a big problem. So much so that I developed an entire program titled “Training for Failure” that addresses these problems and I offer tangible, actionable solutions.

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

My philosophy on this is pretty simple. Life will have bright moments and dark moments. I don’t dwell on the dark moments. Someone once told me that when I’m going through hell, don’t stop to take pictures. That was solid advice. I get through the down times and rebound as fast as possible and stay focused on my goals.

I go to painstaking efforts to stay away from negative people and I am very attracted to the company of positive people. Oh, and I don’t watch the news or read the newspaper. That may sound odd, but I live a happier life without having my head filled with media spun doom-and-gloom.

I started teaching full-time in 2009, right in the height of the economic meltdown. If I had listened to the news, there would have been no way I could have ever been successful as a speaker. I simply tuned all that out and got on with the process of building my speaking and consulting business.

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”?

This question speaks directly to the mission of Situational Awareness Matters: Helping first responders see the bad things coming… in time to prevent bad outcomes. Flawed situational awareness is consistently the leading contributing factor in near-miss and casualty reports. Yet most first responders know next to nothing about it. I am trying very hard to change that.

gasaway3If you could provide some of the younger generation of firefighters with a few “words of wisdom,” what would they be?

You can’t train enough for a job that can kill you! Oftentimes I have program attendees with 40, 45, even 50 years of service coming to my classes to learn. This inspires me and I always call them out and thank them for giving the class one of the greatest take-away lessons of the day. No matter how many years of service you have, there is still much to be learned.

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

Allegedly right? Ok. I know a firefighter who, after a vehicle accident, swept up a pile of tempered glass fragments, put them in a pillowcase and took them back to the station. Late at night he got a fellow firefighter’s car keys and went out to victim-firefighter’s car. He rolled down the power window on the driver’s rear-side rear door. Then he sprinkled the broken glass fragments inside the car and on the ground outside the car.

When the victim-firefighter went out to his car the next morning he thought someone had broken into his car over night. He cleaned up all the glass, got some plastic and duct tape, and taped up the window. The window remained taped up for several shift days until he could get it into a glass repair shop.

He dropped the car off at the glass repair shop and left. Within 15 minutes the technician called him on his cell phone and told him the car was repaired and ready to pick up. He was amazed it only took the shop 15 minutes to replace his window. When he arrived the technician explained the window wasn’t broken, it was only rolled down.

Of course, the victim-firefighter quickly did the math and realized he’d been pranked. Again… this only allegedly happened, right?