ISFSI Member Spotlight: Mary Sovick

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

I am a retired firefighter/EMT from South Metro (Denver) Fire Rescue (SMFR). When I left SMFR, I decided to start a business, Fireline Training & Consulting, because I had recognized a need for help with writing tasks at all levels of the fire service. Very quickly, training officers were asking for writing-related training. While the focus, of course, was on writing reports, I quickly recognized that in order to strengthen reports, I needed to help develop confidence and competence in basic writing skills. In order to write quality reports of all types, people need to be comfortable with writing well-organized documents with complete sentences and coherent paragraphs and to able to spell correctly. Of course, most members of your departments face a multitude of writing responsibilities in addition to reports, so the need goes beyond reports. Now I travel around the country teaching anywhere from ½ day – multi-day classes on writing-related topics. I also teach classes for the NFA and just stopped teaching online courses for Colorado State University’s Fire and Emergency Services Administration degree program. Additionally, I help departments set up and/or evaluate graded written components for promotional processes. And there’s more, but you get the idea.

Before I was a firefighter, I was an elementary school teacher. I had always taken Red Cross first aid classes because I wanted to be prepared to handle medical emergencies at school. I had also always worked out. I stopped teaching when my first child was born and started a rototilling business, which led me to become more competent with operating and maintaining machinery. So when I decided I wanted to change careers, several of my firefighter friends encouraged me to consider firefighting as an option. My husband was willing to manage the parenting role for our two children for the ten days a month I would be away. All in all, I knew firefighting would be a great career path, and that proved to be true.

Who or what has inspired you as a fire instructor?

I don’t even know the name of the woman who inspired me, but I attended a one-day writing seminar that was stimulating and fun, and instantly I knew I wanted to bring that type of respectful, stimulating training to my co-workers. Also, one of my captains, Dave Hoff, integrated meaningful, team-building, in-house training to most of our work days days, which opened my eyes to training’s potential positive impact. 

What are some things you are working on in your department and how can others learn from that?

I’m considering breaking my training into smaller segments so they can be offered online. Covid is prompting me to do this, even though I’ve been thinking about it for awhile.

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

For the past two years, I’ve worked with the National Fire Academy to redesign a course I’ve taught there for 20 years. The original, two-week course was Fire Service Communications, which involved one week of writing training and one week of verbal communication skills. In the new course, students will take a 10-week, fully-online, asynchronous writing course and a few weeks or months later will complete the course at the NFA campus for six days focusing on verbal communications. My primary role in this project was to help develop the online writing portion. This will hopefully allow more people to take this much-needed course since they will only be away from home and work for one week rather than two. Since I’ve taught fully online courses for Colorado State University for many years, I know that meaningful networking and learning can happen in the online environment. This is most significant to me because the course will likely be around for a long time, hopefully providing meaningful training to many people in the emergency services.

What do you hope to accomplish as a fire service instructor?

I want to help people realize that writing is a trainable skill, like learning to operate a pump panel. I want firefighters to realize they have a written image, and I want to help them make sure that image reflects the professionalism I assume they bring to other aspects of their job.

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

I want them to remember that they enjoyed my training, that they learned relevant lessons that they could instantly use, and that they found ways to apply the lessons and improve their own writing.

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

Ha! There were no computers in the firehouse when I began! More importantly, though, has been the steady increase in the professionalism of the fire service, leading to our ability to provide a vastly wider array of services to our communities.

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

I love cycling. In addition to using my bike for most errands, my husband and I enjoy multiple-day distance rides. One notable ride was the Ma-to-Ma ride, where we rode from his mom’s house near Chicago to my mom’s house in Terre Haute, Indiana. We’ve also ridden the GAP/C&O Canal trail from Pittsburg to Washington, D.C.; the Natchez Trace Trail in Mississippi; Venice to Pisa; parts of Costa Rica; the Mickelson Trail in South Dakota; Ride the Rockies in Colorado; and lots of other Rails to Trails systems in the U.S. By the way, all of these rides happened after I had my knees replaced, so I’m an advocate for getting bad knees fixed so you can get on with doing activities you love.

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

Treat your participants with respect. Learn and use their names (It makes training more fun for them and for you). Learn best practices for teaching adults and consistently apply the basics when designing your own classes. Join fire service training groups and other groups such as Toastmasters and the Association for Talent Development (ATD). 

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