ISFSI Member Spotlight: Vincent Reynolds

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

I was born in San Antonio TX as the 4th of 8 children in my family. My parents instilled in me a deep faith in God which remains central in my approach to life. My father was a U.S. Army officer, so we moved around quite a bit in my early years. My mother was from St. Louis MO and had a cousin who was a captain in the St. Louis Fire Dept. However, I never met him and had no other ancestral or family ties that caused me to gravitate to the fire service. I've wanted to be a firefighter for as long as I can remember. When I was about 3-4 years old, my father took me to a firehouse where we lived in North Little Rock AR. One of the firemen hoisted me up on the front seat next to him on a fire engine sitting on the apron in front of the engine bay. When he went to back into the firehouse, the fire engine suddenly lurched backward and I pitched forward with my face moving straight for the windshield. The driver shot his right arm out, caught me, leaned me against the back of the seat, and held me there as he continued to back the engine in. That was my first ever ride on a fire engine. Fast forwardd to 1973 when I joined the Aetna Hose, Hook & Ladder Company (a volunteer department in Newark DE) as an 18-year old probie. I also got a job as the EMS guy with a small paid fire department at a thoroughbred race track in New Castle County DE. That helped me pay the bills at the University of Delaware where I completed my Bachelor's degree in Chemistry and Biology in 1977. (Gosh - I'm feeling kind of old remembering all this stuff!) Life back then consisted mainly of taking college classes, going to fires, and learning about the fire service. I went to pump school, became an engine chauffeur, and a chauffeur as well as a tillerman on a ladder truck (open cab and open tiller, so a very wet ride in the rain and a very cold ride in the winter). As an EMT, I also responded on a lot of EMS calls (even though EMS was not particularly welcome in the firehouse during that era). Then my life track took a turn when I stepped back from the fire service to pursue graduate studies in Toxicology at the University of Kentucky (Go Big Blue!). After 5 grueling, but immensely rewarding years, I earned both a Master's degree and a PhD in Toxicology. I also met a lovely young lady who became first my wife, then the mother of our children, and now the grandmother of our grandchildren. Following 3 years of post-doctoral training at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia PA, I was hired as a staff toxicologist in the chemical industry in northern Delaware. I resumed participating with my volunteer department and became a member of the site industrial fire brigade as well as a Field Instructor at the Delaware State Fire School. In 1999, I made a career move from the chemical industry to the pharmaceutical industry and we relocated our family to central Indiana where I joined the Greenfield Fire Department (a combination department just east of Indianapolis). On my 60th birthday, I informed my chief that I was too old to be crawling down smoke-filled hallways anymore and so I moved to a purely training role which is where I am now.

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

I had the great good fortune to have received excellent training from many wonderful fire instructors. Some of them were members of my volunteer department providing in-company training while others were at the Delaware State Fire School teaching the more formal classes. Many of these remarkable persons were 'natural' teachers who were able command respect and convey knowledge without being intimidating or abusive. They were great examples of how to behave with others and a source of inspiration for me.

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

I focus mainly on two areas. First, increasing awareness for what I call the 'Trifecta of Tragedy' (i.e., basement fires, bowstring truss roofs, and wind-impacted fires). Fires in this trifecta account for a disproportionately high number of fireground deaths among firefighters. Second, I spend a lot of time on efforts to address and reduce cancer risks for firefighters. That lets me use my combination of experience and training in both firefighting and toxicology.

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

In 2022 and 2023, I was an organizer and co-chair of the scientific session at the International Firefighter Cancer Symposium at the University of Miami. This was very rewarding as it let me combine my interests in firefighting and toxicology. It also gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of great people. Imagine being immersed in the sciences and toxicology, working with firefighters, and being surrounded by really smart people! It doesn't get any better than that!

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

I focus on things we need to know to save our lives and not so much on things we need to acquire certifications to save our job or advance in a promotion process. This is why I spend time with lessons on size-up of incidents involving the 'trifecta of tragedy' - basement fires, bowstring truss roofs, and wind-impacted fires. Without heightened situational awareness, trifecta incidents would be approached using routine tactics that may not be sufficient. I don't think the trifecta topics are adequately addressed in the formal certification-oriented classes (with the exception that wildland firefighters have much better training on the importance of wind speed and direction).

More recently, I've been getting increasingly involved in cancer awareness for firefighters. With my background in toxicology, I've been able to start conversations with some of my contacts in the scientific community that will hopefully lead to improved screening, early detection, and improved clinical outcomes. There's a lot that needs to be done in this area, and it's still very much a work in progress.

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

This is really not something that I dwell on at all. I'd rather people remember what I taught them and pass it along to whoever comes along behind them than worry about how they might remember me.

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

Oooooh. Tough question. I started in the fire service in 1973 on the East coast. Now it's 2023 and I'm in the Midwest. So different time and different geography. Some major changes include: 1) Firefighters are not as dirty and grimy as we used to be - which is a good thing! 2) EMS is far higher quality and much more accepted in the fire service now. EMS people used to be treated like real lepers. Thankfully, those days are largely behind us. 3) The 'kitchen table' is not as central to firehouse culture as it was when I started. Much of my real fire education happened at the kitchen table. There is more "distraction addiction" today with cell phones, and it's tougher to get a productive conversation going at the kitchen table. 4) A lot of fire service education today is oriented more towards acquiring certifications ("stamp collecting") and less about transmitting knowledge. So many important lessons painfully learned in the past are lost. I taught a class on bowstring truss roofs recently, and no one had ever heard about the Waldbaum's fire or the Hackensack fire. After a tragedy, we all say, "Never forget!" But if lessons are not passed on by the senior generation, then they will be forgotten. 5) The importance of health/wellness (particularly mental health) is more recognized now. I knew of several members of my volunteer department who committed suicide many years ago, and this remains an important problem today. Some departments are doing an outstanding job helping members through tough times. They are excellent examples of how to grow and change in response to concerns that were not adequately addressed previously.

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

I have a pretty nice collection of very old newspapers reporting on fire-related topics that I've had framed. They are from roughly 150-175 years ago and have engravings, pictures, and interesting stories of how we used to operate. I've started to give these away, mainly to the departments whose forefathers are depicted in the articles.

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?

The best title is "A good firefighter who really loves his fellow firefighters." That's the only title I aspire to.

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

Rule #1. Keep faith in God at the center of your life and all that you do.
Rule #2. Before teaching a class, make sure to PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE! Then practice some more.
Rule #3. When teaching a class, read the room continuously; if you're not connecting with your class, it might be your own fault for doing a poor job preparing and delivering the lesson.
Rule #4. After teaching a class, review your performance, identify your mistakes, and find ways to do better next time. If you can't find any mistakes, then look again!
Rule #5. See Rule #1.

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