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More Lesson's I Learned at the Circus

January is an important month to me. It is more than just the first month of the New Year, but it is the month when I travel south to play my tuba at the circus in Florida. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy getting together with my circus music buddies at the Windjammer's Unlimited Annual Meet in Sarasota. My associates and I come together from around North America to share our love of times past, when a great many circuses moved across the face of America.

For those of you over the age of 55, your memories of circuses past are far different than those of people growing to adulthood today. The last time I saw the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus it looked more like a Broadway show with trained elephants. There were lasers and electronic music. It just did not tickle my old-time fancy.

In the Freehold of my youth, attendance at a circus was a treat that only came around infrequently. I can still recall the sights and sounds of the circuses which usually were set up in the parking lot across Highway 33 from the Freehold Raceway in Freehold, NJ. The smell of popcorn, the taste of a hot dog and the rising swell of a circus band takes me back to a more innocent time in the world, and in my life. So it was once again in Sarasota this year.

As I sit crafting these words for you I am comfortably ensconced in an extremely roomy compartment located in car number 5240 of the Amtrak's Auto Train. I am sipping a nice warm cup of coffee and enjoying a restful moment of reflection upon just how the last week in Florida played out. Let me not mince words. I had a ball my friends.

Although my vacation time is now at an end and I am on my way back to the workaday world in New Jersey, I go forth with a smile on my face and a warm glow within my soul. For you see, this week was another great success. And yes, I learned something, another series of lessons if you will. I learned that the words of my commentary on the circus which I wrote last February had a far greater impact than I could ever have imagined.

Last year I gave you the following tips for organizational success which I sawed exemplified by the Sarasota Police Athletic League's (PAL) Sailor Circus:

  • Be enthusiastic
  • Be accepting of others
  • Always be present for others
  • Always be useful to others
  • Know the capabilities of your people
  • Operate within those identified competencies

When I spoke with the circus director this year, I was surprised to discover that the leaders at the Sailor Circus had downloaded and printed my article last year. They had it prominently displayed on the walls of their dressing areas and used it as a motivational tool for their performers. I was moved to tears by this. I guess none of us ever does fully appreciate the impact of our efforts on this earth. I shall work hard to merit their trust.

My friends, I want you to know that the passage of time has not diminished the importance of these values to the leaders and performers at the circus. I saw them reinforced once again this year at the circus in Sarasota. However, there were some things which I saw this year that I might have missed last year.

This year I want to stress the importance of teamwork and safety in the creation of a spirit of organizational success. I am sure that safety was a great part of the show last year, but perhaps it jumped out a bit more at me this year.

Let me share a bit of the history of this youth circus program. At one time the Sailor Circus was part of the vocational education programs offered at Sarasota High School. As such it trained students for possible future employment as circus performers. At some point a couple of years ago, the school system decided to shut down the program. It was at this point that the Police Athletic League saw an opportunity and took it. They saw this as another fine opportunity to improve their outreach in the Sarasota area.

Unfortunately with the loss of school support, the costs of operating and maintaining the circus facility fell upon the PAL's shoulders. Given the age and condition of the facility, they were faced with the need to raise a substantial amount of money. Fortunately they were blessed with a dedicated, hard-working fundraising director in Jim Shirley. He is ably assisted by Sailor Circus Director Patty Campbell.

Right now they are in the midst of a major fund-raising campaign designed to gather the resources necessary to renovate the Sailor Circus facility located next to the Sarasota High School. They have raised 1.9 million dollars of the 3.1 million dollars needed to complete phase one of their renovation program. You can help too. Just go to for the necessary details. I know I will.

On Sunday, Jan. 28, I was part of a 125-member Center Ring Circus Concert band which regaled a crowd of more than 400 people at the Sailor Circus arena. We played such widely divergent pieces as Wagner's Prelude to Act Three of Loehengrin, the American Red Cross March, the International Vaudeville March, and Barnum and Bailey's Favorite. There were also waltzes and intermezzos. In my mind, I felt as though I had drifted back in time to the 1920's.

This is not uncommon for me though. I have often thought that I would have made a terrific tuba player for the old Newark Fire Department Band of the 1920's and 1930's. Heck, I would have loved to have played in the old Freehold, New Jersey Fireman's Band of my youth. Unfortunately neither group has existed for a great many years now. Times and tastes change. I guess you could say that I have developed into a practicing anachronism; a man born years after his time.

After we completed our performance, the arena floor was cleared and the smaller circus band took our place. This 28-piece group, led by an actual retired circus bandmaster, provided appropriate music for the young performers who delighted us with their circus skills. After a short introductory concert (as was the way in the old days), the young performers came out to strut their stuff for us.

Once again I was like a kid at the circus. I had my popcorn and a hot dog; Shades of Freehold circa 1957. The only concession to time and aging was that I bought a diet Coke to go with the hot dog and popcorn. There I sat, like a kid at the circus. How often do we get to relive our lives? It was fantastic.

Anyway, I once again learned some important lessons at that circus which I want to share with you. They involve the important concepts of safety and teamwork. My friends, there was a solid, continuing emphasis on safety. As the various high wire and elevated props were rigged by the crew, each step was overseen by what we in our fire service world would call a safety officer. No act was allowed to perform until the safety officer was satisfied that the prop was properly rigged and ready to go.

It was evident to me that the performers in the various acts were well drilled in the skills of their craft. Their performances were obviously the product of a great deal of practice, preparation, and perspiration. In many instances, the performers worked in two-person teams, with each backstopping the other in the presentation of their daring deeds. I was privileged to witness a marvelous marriage of precision and practice come together 20 feet above the center ring of the circus on more than one occasion.

The rigging teams worked as a well-oiled machine under the direction of the team leader. Each aspect of the operation was checked, doubled checked, and then checked again. These men and women displayed a keen sense of concern for the young lives which were placed into their hands by the PAL organization. Safety was their watchword at all times. The teamwork spoke for itself.

Sadly, it is often quite different in our fire service world. How many times have you and I witnessed a fire department operation which seemingly rolled out of the starting gate without a hint of safety being on anyone's mind? Like the young circus performers I witnessed, you and I also perform some pretty dangerous and death-defying stunts in our world. The PAL's concern with safety provides a lesson and a mindset which surely needs to be understood, appreciated, and emulated by us.

Like many of you, I have tried to keep my eye on the prize of safety. How often have you seen my words on the topic of seatbelts? More than once I would hope. Yet we have people within the fire service who actively campaign against seatbelts. I have even met people who told me that they wouldn't be caught dead wearing those silly sissy straps.

My normal comeback for these clowns is one of agreement. This usually stops them in their tracks. Yes my friends, I tell them, if you wear those belts you will probably not be caught dead in them, because your life will be saved by the seatbelt straps.

The track record of success with these safety devices is strong. Seat belts save lives. The opposite is not so positive to ponder, but the evidence is there for all to see. Sadly as I move from place to place in the fire service I am reminded of the old circus saying: It's a different circus, but they have the same clowns.

During one part of the show I sat perched on the edge of my seat with excitement as I watched a young lady traverse the high-wire on her bicycle. However, not to worry my friends; she was operating within the tight grasp of a wired safety harness operated by an attentive, well-built, and capable young man located on the floor below her. There was also a heavy rope safety net strung under her with spotters at all four corners. Every possible precaution was taken to insure her safety.

The same was true for the human pyramid act which followed hers. Two young ladies carried a third balancing on a bar slung between their shoulders. The young lady on the bar was fitted out with the safety harness. The attention of the safety spotters was riveted on the performers, ready to do what they had to in the event of a problem. Fortunately there were no problems.

If these folks can get the message about safety, how come so many within the fire service fail to see the value in working safely? We bemoan the deaths and injuries, but fail to take the simple steps that will place us within a safe working environment. Far too many people in the fire service talk a great game about safety, but in those cases when push really comes to shove, these folks turn out to be nothing more than "We've Always Done it That Way Warriors" who think that safety is for sissies.

Another important player on the Sailor Circus team is their artistic director Susan Loeffler. It is her job to drill her young charges time and again on the tricky tasks which they are being trained to perform. It is her job to see that these budding young performers are able to deliver a solid show. She works to hone their skills to a sharp edge however safety is never sacrificed for expediency. First and foremost it is important to her for all of her charges to go home safely after delivering a solid show.

I don't know about you, but I have a ton of stories about how some of the young, capably-trained firefighters which my buddies in the training division and I turned out who were instantly and permanently corrupted upon arriving at their first firehouse. How many of you have heard someone utter those magic words, "...yeah, that might be how they do it in training, but we do it different here kid." This is typical of the flawed logic which starts the downward spiral that in far too many cases leads to death or injuries to the troops.

The people making these stupid statements are not students of our fire service. These are the folks who after 30 years on their fire department have one year of experience repeated 29 more times. These are the people you can count on for an annual quota of screw ups. Trust me when I tell you that this is not a career versus volunteer issue. I have seen screw ups on both sides of the coin.

Folks like this only show up only when they must, and offer no assistance to those who serve with them. I can only wonder why they bother to continue serving with their departments. These folks could learn a great deal from the fine folks who run the PAL Sailor Circus in Sarasota, Florida.

The young people I saw performing in that circus were really enthusiastic, as were their coaches and supporters. Once again I saw a great deal of interaction between the coaches and performers. Whenever one of the young people seemed to need some support, a coach appeared and took care of business. These mentors seemed always ready to set the example for their people.

Their concern for the program and the young people who are placed in their care is obvious. These folks lead by example and work to build a solid team. As I watched the passing parade from my train window while leaving Florida, I paused for a moment to say a prayer for the folks at the circus and for all of you in the fire service.

Danger is our business and the only solid antidotes for death and injury are training, teamwork, and a deep and abiding concern for safety. Please try to dispense equal doses of each in the coming months and years of your fire service career. I would expect nothing less from a real leader.