What a Difference a Day Makes…

By David A. Smolka
Courage to Be Safe® Trainer

Every September I head to the Jersey shore (the Wildwoods) for the annual New Jersey State Firemen’s Convention. This particular September, I noticed that the Everyone Goes Home® program’s Courage to be Safe® Train-the-Trainer was being offered. I had seen information about the program on the internet and had signed up for the newsletter but really didn’t go past that type of involvement. So, having pre-registered, I headed to the class on a day which was shaping up to be sunny and warm. Students began to file in, all probably feeling the same way – What am I doing here? As the instructors began the presentation, my attention turned from the weather outside to what the goal of the program was and why I was actually there. I learned that, when completed, the class brought the number of instructors in New Jersey to about 100, out of which, maybe only half were teaching. That statement empowered me to commit my time and effort in presenting the program. That day has made all the difference in my life. Because like most firefighters with more than 20 years of experience, I was one of the pictures used in the presentation. I think back about the macho image of riding the back step of a speeding fire truck, standing while putting on an S.C.B.A., no seatbelts and the list goes on, you know, the thought that nothing will happen to me because I have a badge…yeah that was me.

As a career captain and volunteer fire chief, I believe that the Everyone Goes Home® and Courage to Be Safe® programs have changed me personally by bringing the 16 Life Safety Initiatives to the forefront of my thoughts when showing up to work, teaching a probationary firefighter, or encouraging a veteran to think about their actions. I actually keep a copy of the 16 Initiatives taped to the file cabinet next to my desk.

My first presentation was to a group of high school students who participate in a Tech-Prep program which includes Firefighter I, EMT, and Building Construction. During the class I stressed the need for firefighters to wear seatbelts and that as young firefighters the first and easiest thing to accomplish when they were allowed on the apparatus would be to buckle up. The program concluded and they were on their way. As they left, I wondered if they would remember anything I talked about by time they left the building.

The next day the class showed up again and conversations started. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. One student was talking about a fire call that he was able to go on and how when he got on the apparatus he buckled up. He then stated that the Lieutenant who was sitting in the back questioned what he was doing and actually made fun of him. The young firefighter didn’t back down. He remained steadfast and stayed buckled and actually told the officer information that he had heard in the class the day before. The officer ignored the young firefighter on the way to the run but did change his outlook by buckling up on the way back. I thanked him for listening and for trying to make a change in his department.

My recommendation to my brother and sister instructors is not to wait for departments to come to you. You need to constantly push the program. Anytime you have a chance to relate something that is going on in your town related to the program, take that opportunity. Go to different association meetings, try to get someone there who has taken the class to confirm your convictions and let them help in selling the class. Lastly, remind them that the class is FREE. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know a firefighter who isn’t looking for something free.

My passion comes from living the life of a firefighter 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As a career fire captain, volunteer fire chief, New Jersey State certified instructor and a rescue specialist with New Jersey Task Force 1 – U.S.A.R. team, I have the opportunity to draw on all my experiences to connect with the target audience. I truly believe in the message of the Everyone Goes Home® program and Courage to Be Safe® training program and I think that the students are able to pick up on that.

Lastly, I draw on my family – my wife Luann, my boys Anthony, Bryan, and Steven, and our soon to be had little girl. Knowing that they expect me home at the end of the shift is enough to help me get the message across to everyone else. None of this would be possible without the understanding of my wife Luann, who knows all too well the life of a firefighter. In 1986, she experienced the line-of-duty death of her cousin Joseph Woods of the Trenton Fire Department.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Everyone Goes Home® program for the honor of receiving one of the Everyone Goes Home® Challenge Coins and to be given the opportunity to be considered for the National Seal of Excellence Award. It is truly one of the highlights of my career in the fire service.