Horn: Today’s Firefighters Must Ignite Young People’s Passion for Service and Leadership

Gavin Horn

“Most of us are here today because we caught the most amazing break of all–being introduced to the fire service. We found a passion in its duty, honor, service, and traditions,” Gavin Horn, director of research at the Illinois Fire Service Institute, related in the opening remarks of his keynote address at Thursday’s General Session. Gavin noted that even at the age of three, he was attracted by mechanics, which he attributed to his father’s being a great mechanic, and the motorcycle shop his parents owned in Illinois.

But, he ultimately credited Wilb’s Fix It shop in Elgin, Illinois, for arousing his passion for the fire service. This “magical place” not only enforced his inclination for mechanics, he explained, but “would let me get my hands on a project and learn the value of getting a difficult job done”; being a “craftsman”; and “knowing a little about electricity, plumbing, welding, and just about anything that can get you out of a jam.”

Wilbert Westerman, owner of Wilb’s, and his employees kept the lawns and yards in town in good shape and were great mechanics. But what really impressed Horn was that “they resolved the problem of the loss of fire protection for the town by adding a bay on the back of the shop to house a pumper and [the shop] became Pingree Gove Station #3. Five members of their community dedicated their time and energy to learn the art of fighting a fire when they weren’t turning a wrench. These guys were real life supermen. This was a place where everyday people – mechanics, parts boys, shop owners– went to work each day – until called upon to help our neighbors. They would drop their tools, wipe the grease from their hands, head to the back bay and emerge on a shiny fire truck to help those in need. Their lessons, their dedication, and their actions left an indelible mark on me. I could not ask for better role models.”

Horn attended college and earned a doctorate degree in mechanical engineering. After college, when trying to decide how he could use his skills and abilities to make a difference in the world, he said he came upon the profession called “Fire Protection Engineering and then this place called the Illinois Fire Service Institute and he became aware that his ‘passion [for the fire service] could be reinvigorated even after years.’”

His next “break” came in the form of an “opportunity at the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI), which provided amazing grounds for cultivating a passion.” Horn described how during his first Fire College at IFSI, he went from class to class “amazed at what he heard, saw … and did.” He recalled company officers showing the mechanics of the hands-on techniques built on years of experience, proudly teaching the students “what was learned through blood, sweat and tears.”

Horn cited a “fix it” similarity between the IFSI and Wilb’s: There was a need for action-oriented research based on the needs of the fire service, driven by the fire service, and so the fire department instructors in the state of Illinois fixed it, ensuring that research, science, and engineering were critical pillars of the education and training for firefighters for the past several decades. He recalled becoming excited about Denise Smith’s “incredible studies on the mechanics of how a firefighter’s body works and Underwriters Laboratories Fire Research Institute’s Dan Madrzykowski presenting the mechanics and science related to The Station nightclub fire at Winter Fire School.”

He found another igniter of his passion for the fire service when he went to the FDIC for the first time: “Each year, we can all be reinvigorated by the education, the camaraderie, and the entertainment we find there. There is the legacy of influence from so many of the legends who have impacted both FDIC and IFSI–so many whose instructing and teaching innovations have left a lasting impression on our walls.”

But, Horn said, “I will never forget that Wilbert Westerman was responsible for beginning my fire service story. If he had not fixed a fire service need in his community, I never would have heard of these other influencers.” Horn used this indelible experience of his as a bridge to the audience. “Kids from somewhere are being born each day, growing up, and someday could enter our profession, and shops like Wilb’s are fewer and farther between. Kids don’t have as many opportunities to get their hands dirty as mechanics at a young age. Your influence might ignite their passion for the fire service. Even if they do not join the fire service, we can influence these new leaders to understand the risks and challenges firefighters face so that they can design a better world for us and the population we are sworn to protect.”

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