DAY 59 - GRADUATION

February 5, 2010:

The day had arrived! Family and friends had gathered to see “their Recruit” take the oath and pin on the Badge of “FIREFIGHTER!” My classmates looked so young and crisp in the their bright white shirts, sporting – for the first time – the American Flag on the right shoulder, and the bold red and white “Maltese Cross” patch of the “Saint Paul Fire Department” on the left shoulder.
 
Chief Morehead was the Master of Ceremonies at the graduation ceremony. Mayor Coleman presided and handed each man the coveted badge of FIREFIGHTER. One of my classmates, Andy Bieze – our class spokesman - spoke eloquently about dreams fulfilled, going through the academy, and what it means to be a Saint Paul Firefighter. Mr. Vrona, the Mayor, Dr. Kory Kaye, Chief Morehead, and I also made remarks to the class and the audience. I was in the official capacity of Fire Chief, feeling part of the class….yet not one of them for today. It was their day – a day of unbridled success and triumph, relief, and of dreams come true! I was humbled and deeply honored to be awarded the silver and red badge of FIREFIGHTER by Mayor Coleman. It was a most fitting testament to the last 13 weeks of training!
 
My immediate and extended families attended the ceremony. Many of the younger ones took the day off from school to be there. An old Coast Guard buddy of mine came in from Milwaukee to see the show. He caught me totally by surprise by coming all that way to see me and celebrate this day with me. Kendel: you are a TRUE Shipmate and Friend! My nephew Vincent was there, along with a friend of his, Michael – both members of the Emergency Medical Rescue Service in Cannon Falls.
 
Words cannot express my joy at having completed the academy, but I did have “a few” words to say to the audience and my classmates about the Class of 2010. Here are the remarks I made to them during my graduation address:
 
 
Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen! Thank you for being here today!
 
The Saint Paul Fire Department was formed in November of 1855. The department started with just three pieces of equipment: a fire engine, a ladder truck, and a hose cart – all drawn by hand.....the hands of a small band of young, strong, spirited men selected from the community they served. It was back before the era of horses and steam-powered firefighting pumps...and long before motorized vehicles......The department’s responses back then were known as “fire runs” – because the firefighters literally responded by running down the street pulling their hand drawn rigs and equipment to the scene. 
 
The firefighters were special men....selected for their physical strength, their mental toughness, and their willingness to serve others. Over the ensuing decades of service, these men became renowned for their extreme bravery, their compassion for others, and their devoted service to the citizens of Saint Paul. Today we’re here to welcome and congratulate the next generation of Saint Paul Firefighters, and to celebrate their transformation from “Civilian” to “Public Servant”...their promotion from “Recruit” to “Firefighter.” 
 
I said that Firefighters are special....and the Class of 2010 is truly a unique group of special people! Five years ago, over 2,000 men and women took the arduous Firefighter entrance exam. 2,000 people vying for a handful of jobs.....And then....there were no jobs available! In the worst economic crisis in since the 1930’s, the Department was faced with 28 firefighter layoffs for 2010, and no hope of hiring anymore from our 2005 test.  Over 700 men and women would “die on the list” as the department continued to shrink. But thanks to the leadership of Mayor Coleman, Council President Lantry, and the firefighter and chief officer unions, the City made a bold decision – the right decision for our citizens and our Department – and chose not to lay off firefighters. We fought for and secured a federal SAFER grant that permitted us to hire the Class you see before you today.
 
2010: the class that almost wasn’t a class at all! 20 out of 2,000 were selected for their physical strength, their mental toughness, and their willingness to serve others. The members of this class waited five years - some waited even longer - to be called up and offered the chance of a lifetime. One has waited since he was a kid, really – a young Saint Paul Fire Explorer eager to one day pin on the badge of a Saint Paul Firefighter. One recruit is the grandson of veteran Firefighter “Red Haslach.” Red served over 38 years with the department and is now 102 years old – he’s with us today to watch his grandson graduate! Welcome, Red! 
 
Like the phoenix – that mythical bird that rises from the ashes of destruction – we brought forth a new spirit of hope from a dying hiring list, and we’re incredibly blessed as a department and as a City that these recruits answered that telephone call with an emphatic YES! We had to reach two of them as they served military tours in Iraq. One was called while on his honeymoon in Hawaii. One was called on the same day that he received an offer to join the Dallas, Texas Fire Department. Yes, we are incredibly lucky to have them here, and blessed that they have answered the call to serve. And so they came to us....from Saint Paul...from Minneapolis....from Saint Cloud and Duluth, and Dallas, and Hawaii, and from the sandy hot hills of Iraq.....
 
I joined them on their 13-week journey through the FireAcademy, and shared their transformation from “Civilian” to “Firefighter.” I saw first hand how incredibly talented and spirited they were...how quickly they bonded into a team. For the first few days of class they were quiet and reserved, excited.....eager....yet restrained. I think it was on about the third day - when someone loudly passed gas - that the ice was finally broken! From then on, you could not restrain their passion for the job or the success of their classmates. They quickly bonded to help each other succeed, and everyone freely shared their experiences and strengths with the group. They were strong and bold, and the spirit of youth was upon them. I could not be more proud of them.....and I was honored to be counted as one of them.
 
We learned the trade....we learned some tricks of the trade. We strengthened our bodies and ran endless flights of stairs. We endured the rigors of survival skill training and controlled burns....and the equally demanding task of studying all 37 chapters in the course textbook and a 3” think binder of department policies and procedures. The physical and mental demands were enormous....and these men not only succeeded, but EXCELLED!
 
Life in the academy was a full-time job and required a full-time commitment. I personally want to thank Assistant Fire Chief Jim Smith, Executive Services Director, John Swanson, and the members of my senior staff: they took over most of the work of “Fire Chief,” and allowed me to attend this academy. I cannot thank them enough for giving me the precious gift of “opportunity!”
 
I also want to profoundly thank Chief Keith Morehead, Captain Jerry Deno, Training Officer Clarence “Hawk” Hawkins, and Lead Instructor Bernie Vrona. These 4 men were our instructors at the academy, and their experience, judgment, attitude, and sacrifice are truly outstanding. I don’t know when they found time to eat, sleep, prepare all the logistical details, or find the time to relax with their families. They pushed us hard....but they pushed themselves even harder. True leaders to a man, they ran, crawled, sucked air, and got dirty, wet, and frozen right alongside all of us. I admire their dedication and passion for teaching us the skills to save lives and keep ourselves safe. 
 
I know members of this class who worked out 3 times a day on top of studying and raising families. I felt really sorry for my classmates and my instructors who had families – some have infants and toddlers at home, and I know the wives picked up much of the workload while Dad was studying....or working out....or crashing from exhaustion onto the couch at night. The last 13 weeks have been tough on recruits, instructors, and families.
 
My son Jack provided a vivid reminder of the sacrifices made by families of firefighters just last week. Jack’s 12th birthday is today. Happy Birthday, Jack! Jack said to me last Sunday, “Only 5 more days!” Thinking he was excited about his upcoming birthday, I said, “Yeah, only 5 more days until your birthday, huh?” And then he WHAMMED me – as only a loved one can WHAM you right in the heart.....”No, only 5 days until I get my Dad back again.” OUCH....a vivid reminder that Families Also Serve.
 
In a few minutes we’ll take an oath of office – the Firefighter’s Oath” – to serve....to protect.....to sacrifice....We take that oath knowing that we are also committing our families to the long hours, the illnesses we’ll bring home, and the uncertainly of what the pager and the radio might bring us.
 
Yes, I will always remember the spouses, the mothers and fathers and children. who are taking the oath with us today. I will always remember that Families Also Serve. I want to specifically thank the families of the Class of 2010 and all of the Saint Paul Firefighters and Police Officers for their enduring service to the department and the citizens of Saint Paul. Thank you, family members! (Lead the applause).
 
Finally to the class of 2010:
 
THANK YOU most profoundly for making me a part of your special class. You made me feel young and strong and part of something incredibly special. I am so very proud of you!
 
At the Saint PaulFireAcademy, you survived tough, demanding physical training; you overcame academic challenges; you grew stronger hearts and a bold spirit, and now you are at the end of those 13 weeks of training....yet at the beginning of your real learning experience “out in the field.” 
 
Like the men of 1855 – those first firemen in Saint Paul – you were chosen for your physical strength, your mental toughness, and your willingness to serve others. And I know that over next several decades of your service, you too will become renowned for your extreme bravery, your compassion for others, and your devotion to the citizens of Saint Paul and to our Fire Department Family.
 
Our family: Sometimes we’re set in our ways......often opinionated..... We’re tough and aggressive because we have to be; and we’re compassionate and gentle cause we need to be. Welcome to our strong, proud, family!
 
Welcome also to the noble profession of being a public service. Please don’t ever forget that you are public servants first – foremost – always!
 
The words “public” and “service” come from the Latin words for “people” and “slave” – remember you are literally “slaves to the people” and you don’t work for yourself, but for others. Look first to satisfy the needs of the citizens in all situations and at all times. You will know the sacred trust that people put in you as you enter their homes, treat their loved ones, save their treasured possessions, restore their sense of dignity and security, and safeguard the mementos and memories of their life. Never forget the trust that people will place in you......and never betray it. As Chief Appleton so aptly put it: “There’s a name on the back of your jackets. That name MEANS something. Don’t ever do anything to discredit that name!”
 
Now that’s a tall, tall order, and I know we didn’t cover all of that over the last 13 weeks. So remember my 6 Standing Orders to you: the 6 rules to be followed at all times and in all situations. They are your Golden Trump card – to be played anytime you are in doubt. Know too, that I invest you with full authority to carry out each of these duties:
 
Always – always – look at yourselves and evaluate your actions and those of the firefighters around you through the eyes of the citizens. They are the final arbitrators about whether or not our actions are appropriate and the quality of our services.
 
Be problem solvers in the community. You are the pointed end of the spear, you’re where the rubber meets the road. Take your skills, your training, and your truck full of equipment and bring value to the citizen everyday, not just they day they have a fire or a medical emergency.
 
Make your station a safe haven in the neighborhood. Our stations have been an established part of city streets and neighborhoods for decades and decades. Be open to your “neighbors” – welcome them into the public areas of the stations and help them with whatever question or problem they are wrestling with today. Let them see your station as the neighborhood clearinghouse for help, advice, and safe company.
 
Be courageous – physically and morally. You’re not afraid to charge in and attack a fire. Use the same courage and bold action to step in to dispel a rumor, resolve differences, correct a wrong, and bring peace and justice in your work areas, your stations, and your neighborhoods. Challenge convention – and push to implement the lessons learned from other departments in the American Fire Service.
 
Don’t just deliver a service, build a relationship. The relationships you’ll create are what make us “the good guys.” Remember that name on the back of your jackets!
 
Take ground and lead the transformation. Use the resources and training you’ve been given, your unique perspectives, and your initiative and creativity to solve problems and change the way we deliver our services.
 
Today you bless this department with your unique talents and skills. Your strength on the streets will help us make strategic operational changes that our department has looked forward to for the last 20 years for. You bring a fresh perspective and a fresh attitude – don’t lose those precious commodities! It took a long time to get you here.....but I am so incredibly happy that you are! Congratulations, class of 2010! Welcome to the Department and to the rank of Firefighter!
 
 
After the ceremony I had a chance to visit with my family, and the families of my classmates. I was so happy for the families who had ALSO waited years to have their son or brother or husband “called up” to serve as a Saint Paul firefighter. Well, their long wait was over, and now their sacrifice would begin in earnest. They were happy and proud, and I hope they will always remain that way! 
 
I left the party at the very end, and my family went out to celebrate Jack’s birthday. Later, Sue and my oldest daughter, Emily, and I slipped out of the house and attended the graduation party at O’Gara’s in Saint Paul. My classmates and instructors all were there, along with many adult family members. It was good to see them all together one last time before we “split up” to the various shifts and assignments at stations around the City. It was good to feel the camaraderie, youth, and strength one more time….those are three of the things I will always feel when I think of this class – three things I will always hold precious when I see them as FIREFIGHTERS on the streets of Saint Paul!
 
To Andy, Marcus, Larry, Matt B., Matt H., Colin, Kyle, Tyler, Frank, Bernie, Tony, Stefan, Brian L., Brian M., Chuck, Mike, Dane, Joe, Justin, and Adam: your academy experience has ended, but your real journey is just beginning…..I cannot wait to see how far you will go in the upcoming years!!! Thank you for making me part of something special, for being such superb classmates, and for making me feel young and strong again! I wish you the very best of luck in your careers and your future endeavors!
 
Tim

Loading