ISFSI Member Spotlight: Dennis Compton

1. Tell us about yourself and why you decided to join the fire service

I wasn’t one of those guys who had planned for most of my life to become a firefighter. In fact, I had just been discharged from the US Army in February 1970 and was trying to decide what to do with my life. I ran into a friend from high school who had been a Phoenix, Arizona Firefighter for about six months, and he suggested that I take the upcoming test – so I did. The next thing I knew, it was January 1971 and I was in the Phoenix Fire Department Training Academy learning to be a firefighter. Just as my high school friend had predicted, it was something I fell in love with immediately. Being a firefighter is one of the most cherished blessings of my entire life.

2. Who or what has inspired you as a fire instructor

Going clear back to high school, I have always liked to coach sports and teach. My time in the U.S. Army in 1968 and 1969 provided more opportunities to instruct. The fire service has provided myriad choices of what, how, and where to teach and train. My encouragement mostly came from co-workers, teachers, supervisors, and a flame that has burned in me for a long time. 

3. What are some things you are working on and how can others learn from that

During my career I have taught so many different subjects and aspects of being a firefighter and fire officer. My focus for a long time now has been in the area of leadership. Most recently, my work has dealt with more effective ways of mentoring, issues surrounding leaving a position when the time comes, “this gen” and “next gen” leadership, and the tradition of unity within the fire service. When I write articles, teach sessions, speak at conferences, or participate in webinars, for the next couple of years, those will be my areas focus. If you want to get the most out of what I offer, participate – and when you do – be introspective. 

4. Tell us about a project or training accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career

There have been so many over the years, so I’ll just touch on a couple.

  • From 1979 through 1998, I managed the Fire Science Program at Phoenix Community College. This program grew from about 40 students per semester in 1979 to 900 students per semester in 1998. In addition to hiring and supervising instructors, I also taught Tactics and Strategy; Managing Major Emergencies; Supervision; and Personnel Management during those years. It became the largest occupational program in the Maricopa Community College System. Almost all of the students were members of fire departments in the Phoenix metro area or students hoping to become members of those departments. A person was simply not competitive in the hiring and promotional processes without participating in this program.
  • From the late 1980’s until 1998, I led a team in the Phoenix Fire Department who developed and conducted three major national seminars per year covering Firefighter Health and Safety; Incident Management; and Change in the Fire Service. Each one drew attendees from throughout the nation. Using funds we charged for tuition, we were able to send about 50 Phoenix Fire Department Members to each seminar. The speakers included the cream of the crop from around the country. They provided great opportunities for all who attended, and they became a point of pride for the team that developed and staffed them. 

5. What do you hope to accomplish as a fire service instructor

I want to help people develop and become what they want to be professionally – and even personally to some extent.

a. When you are gone, what do you want people to remember you by

I want people to feel as if I performed to the best of my ability every day no matter what position I held – and did what I could to help others achieve their goals. That I also set an example for creating an environment that was positive, productive, and healthy for the participants resulting in exceptional service to our customers.

6. What is the biggest change you have noticed in the fire service since you started

Almost everything has changed in the 51+ years I’ve been in the fire service. However, the most significant overarching change is the diversity of our human resources. The reason I say that is because our diversity impacts everything we are capable of doing inside and outside our fire departments. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s difficult to get political and public support (financial and otherwise) for our issues and needs when we have internal and external conflicts relating to our diversity. Although the fire service has significantly improved in our make-up, there is still a long way to go. Hopefully, more effective recruitment and hiring, ongoing training, improved policies, and an enhanced level of acceptance will take this forward. 

7. What is something that most people don’t know about you

To a large extent, I owe much of who and what I am to the support and love of my wife, Sheri. We’ve been married for 54 years, first meeting and dating when I was about to be a junior and she a sophomore in high school. Her constant encouragement and patience are blessings. Truthfully, I can’t imagine Denny without Sher!

8. If you could choose your title (other than the generic Training Officer or Firefighter) that uniquely describes you in your position, what would it be and why

CONDUCTOR – Because I see my role as helping the orchestra (the fire service), through their individual and collective talents, perform to their highest levels so they can be successful. I’ve evolved into doing that within the fire service in general.  

9. And finally, what advice do you have to give another instructor or to somebody who is just starting out as an instructor

  • It’s the instructor’s responsibility to present the materials in a way that the students can understand. People have different learning styles, and the instructor must master a menu of teaching styles to be effective overall.
  • Instructors must stay relevant to be successful. If what is being taught, or the way it is being taught, is no longer relevant, the instructor cannot be successful. 
  • The instructor must be a student of current research and vow to never teach anything that is widely considered to be an unsafe practice.


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