Leadership

Saving Firefighter Lives, One Decision at a Time

There’s a classic tale of an old man walking on a beach littered with starfish that have washed in on the tide, only to become stranded, where they will die when the sun comes up. He sees a young boy doggedly throwing some of the starfish back into the sea. Confronting the boy, he points out that there are miles of beach, covered in starfish. “You can’t possibly make a difference,” he says. In response, the boy reaches down, tosses another starfish into the ocean, and says simply, “It made a difference for that one.”

We’ve all heard this story before, but at the TAMPA2 Firefighter Life Safety Summit on Monday, Vina Drennan really made it come alive.

Many readers will instantly recognize Vina; her husband was an FDNY captain who died 40 days after suffering overwhelming burns in a fire in 1994. Her loss turned her into a fierce advocate for firefighter safety and for fire prevention and education.

She’s also a powerhouse of energy, and although her presentation in Tampa drew tears, it was relentless in its positive message: We can make a difference.

Lt. Mike Warchola & FF Greg Fruschi
Drennan introduced the audience to Lt. Mike Warchola of FDNY Ladder 5. Warchola was scheduled to have his last shift on 9/11, having turned in his retirement papers. But he never made it home. Warchola, Drennan explained, was an extremely smart individual—“Mensa smart”—with an education that could have landed him in any career. But he chose firefighting. It ran in the family.

And on September 11, Warchola responded like so many FDNY firefighters. “Ladder 5 has a perfect view of the towers,” she says. “They knew in their gut this was the big one, the one they’d trained for, the one they feared and yet didn’t want to miss. They were afraid of these towers, and now they were going in.”

But Warchola’s actions that day show that, in the face of immeasurable loss, individual actions can save lives. Responding with him that day was a probie firefighter, Greg Fruschi, who was supposed to be off duty. Of course, like his brothers, he wanted to respond. Drennan related how he snuck onto the rig, only to be stopped when Warchola discovered him on scene.

“Mike got angry, angrier than anyone had ever remembered seeing him,” Drennan says. “[He shouted] ‘I’ll have your job, Fruschi; you’ll be put on charges before the day is out!’” Warchola ordered the probie to help triage victims instead of going into the towers. Reluctantly, Fruschi obeyed. Warchola led his company in, making it as far as the 40th floor. He was last heard from broadcasting a mayday from the 12th floor.

“Why highlight Mike?” Drennan asked. “Because he used those beautiful brains of his. He knew it was his duty to go in, but also that he could decide not to take one more person. And so today we honor 343 firefighters, instead of 344.” Today, she notes, Greg Fruschi is currently working in Brooklyn, and has a wife and two children.

“Thinking” Firefighters
That decision, that commitment to being a thinking firefighter, is why Drennan chose to tell Warchola’s story at TAMPA2. “Isn’t that the kind of leadership that we’re here to foster in the fire service?” she asks. “Firefighting is a dangerous job, but we want to instill that deliberate decision-making in our leaders.”

And of course, it is also because his decision that day proved the starfish story correct: Warchola couldn’t save everyone, but he could save one person. And that in turn provides a lesson about the need to commit to change, no matter how slow, no matter how incremental. Drennan shared how when she first became involved in firefighter safety, she was impatient. “For years, I wanted to save all the starfish. And yet every year, it was another 100 dead,” she says. “If words could have stopped it, Lord knows I tried. I struck nerves, I offended many.”

Then, in 2004, the first Tampa summit happened. For Drennan, who spoke at the opening of that event too, it was a life-changer. During her presentation, she called out the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) for a less-than-stellar commitment to firefighter personal protective equipment. Sitting in the audience listening to her was the future commissioner of the CFD. He later asked Drennan to spend two days sharing her safety message with CFD members, and even made her an honorary member of the department. And several years later, the bunker gear Drennan had advocated for saved the life of a CFD member.

“That happened because of Tampa—one starfish,” she says. Turning her message outward, she thanked the delegates for taking the opportunity to travel to TAMPA2 and commit to making a difference: “Thank you for helping throw all those starfish back in. We’ll never know how many we’ve saved.”