Member Spotlight: Scott W. Smith

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

I’m 49 years old, and was born and raised In Prospect Park, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. I have a wife of 23 years Kathleen, and two children, Lauren 28, and Garrett 20. I started my time in the Fire Service as a volunteer in 1986 with the Prospect Park Fire Company. I was following in the footsteps of my father and grandfather. My father was a past Chief in the same department, and my grandfather was the board president. I worked my way up to Lieutenant of the Heavy Rescue, and began my career as an instructor during that time. After taking my initial methods of instruction class, I began working as an adjunct instructor at Montgomery County Fire Academy in Conshohocken PA. After working as a paid member of a combination department in Berwyn Pa, I moved to Colorado, and started with West Metro Fire Rescue, outside of Denver. I resumed my instructor career, working with Red Rocks Community College, until they transferred their fire academy to West Metro. During my 19 years there, I rose to the rank of Captain, working as a paramedic, fire investigator, line officer, and training officer. In 2016, I moved to Cimarron Hills Fire, outside of Colorado Springs, where I am today. I live in Eastern Colorado with my wife and son, along with six dogs, two cats, ten chickens, and seven rabbits. When I am not working on things related to the fire service, I enjoy working on my property, camping, hunting, and taking part in other outdoor activities. I also have been working part time as an AFLAC agent, helping people, especially firefighters, to ensure that they and their families are taken care of should they suffer a significant illness,  injury, or cancer.

Who or what has inspired you as a fire instructor?

What inspired me to become an instructor has changed somewhat over the years. Initially, it was the opportunity to take part in classes, and learn from the more senior instructors, and become better at my craft. As time went on, I realized that I could and did learn much from my students, and that classes were often as much a sharing experience as a teaching one. And finally, I came to recognize that the fire service had a long history of failing to pass on institutional knowledge. By this I mean that while a given generation of firefighters tends to learn lessons from tragedies, we have historically done a poor job of passing that information on to the next generation. An example of this would be the Mann Gulch fire, then 55 years later, many of the same mistakes led to another loss of life at Storm King Mountain. This pattern has inspired me to work as an instructor to break this cycle, and ensure that we do pass on what we’ve learned. As for people that have inspired me, the first would be my father, who always preached learning and sharing that knowledge  in the fire service. My grandfather who as a high school teacher was also a huge influence in this realm. As my career progressed, and I began to travel to schools, Pat Pauly and Robert McCabe at the PA State Fire Academy were big influences as well. Finally, Bobby Halton, and his endless spirit and devotion to the fire service always serve to motivate and inspire me.

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

Two things that I am currently working on in my department are first, a wellness initiative, where I post regular emails to all members on a specific wellness topic, often related to current events / seasons, but also tied to new information and studies that I find. I feel that this serves the dual purpose of getting the information to the members of the department, and hopefully also serves to motivate them to seek out new things on their own, as well as implementing them in their lives and careers, to hopefully extend both. The second thing is an “After the Fire”, which was taken and adapted from Prospect Park Fire, where on duty crews take the opportunity to get out and meet with residents in the area in the aftermath of a significant fire. They knock on doors, talk about fire safety, check and install smoke detectors, and answer any questions the citizens might have. This has proven to be an effective and powerful way to reach members of the community.

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

The training accomplishment I feel is most significant in my career is when I had the opportunity to be part of the team that worked on building and instructing a live fire simulator for wind driven fires. This was a modified shipping container, in which crews could observe the progression of a fire, through growth and decay, into a vent limited condition, and then witness up close the effects of uncontrolled ventilation, and the dramatic impact of an added 5 mph wind.

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

As far as what I hope to accomplish as an instructor, it ties back to the second question. I hope to work towards stopping the failure to pass on institutional knowledge in the fire service. In addition, I want to encourage and continue the trend of incorporating technology and science to either support or change the way we do business. In this way, we can make the fire service more effective for our communities, and to make the job safer, and more survivable for our members.

When I am gone, I want people to remember the passion I have for the fire service, for its traditions, and its mission. I want them to remember my commitment to saving and to serving the public, and my unending quest for knowledge.

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

That’s a huge field, so I’ll sum it up by saying the start the recognition of the hazards we face. When I started out, we never wore medical gloves, did mouth to mouth, rarely wore airpacks, and rode tailboard. Most of our actions were based on anecdote or theory, with little of it based on actual science. Since that time, I have seen us move to a place where we preach “BSI, scene safe!”, we wear airpacks at all fires, and even during overhaul. We leave the IDLH before our low air alarms activate, and the apparatus never moves until we are seated and belted. Our gear has improved radically, and we continue to gain a better understanding of the changing fire environment, and the impact our actions have on it, due to the work of NIST and others like the ISFSI.

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

While there are several that fit that category, for this question, I’ll go with the fact that as a middle schooler, I contracted Guillain Barre Syndrome, an auto-immune disease, with progressive paralysis, for which, at the time, there was no treatment, outside of supportive care. I spent 10 weeks in Childrens Hospital in Philadelphia, which was far shorter than most (Doctors told me that I should be realistic when I told them I would not spend my birthday in the hospital, as they thought I’d be there for 4-6 months. I told them that they should listen to me, and I was discharged the day before my birthday). While many who went through this disease back then and many still today suffer lingering effects, I have never let it stop me from reaching for what I want.

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

The advice I’d give to another instructor, especially a new one, is follow your passion! While you must be knowledgeable in all aspects of our job, find the segment that really motivates you, and work to be the best at it, and just as importantly, don’t hold on to that knowledge, PASS IT ON! In order to do that, you must always be a student, strive to learn as much from those you instruct as they learn from you, and recognize, as Bob McCabe said to a young firefighter way back in the late 1980’s, “learn something from everyone you meet. Maybe it’s what you should do, maybe it’s what you should never do, but learn SOMETHING!”

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