Contributors, Leadership

Art of Being a Fire Officer

My brother gave me the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig when I was still in high school. I tried to read it, but completely failed. I tried again about twenty years later, but mostly failed. I finished reading it, but I could barely tell you what it is about and I could not tell you what it meant. However, it stands alone today in my mind as the absolute best book title ever. The Zen from the book is referring to the mindset or religion of Zen (Zen Buddhism). Kaizen (kai-change, zen-good) is pretty much unrelated, but I feel that there is goodness in the “Art” usage.

I have attended Dave Dodson’s The Art of Reading Smoke three times in person and once in a webinar. I can’t remember when I first attended his class, but I can tell you that it changed my view of the fireground forever. I remember being a firefighter at the time and embracing the occasional acting officer opportunity. However, I was also somewhat terrified that my tactics would suck when I truly needed them, so I attended almost every tactics class I could find. I discovered there really was an art in Dave’s class and it was aptly titled. His class taught how to process information about the smoke and what that meant the fire was going to do in a way that no one else had before that I was aware of.

Fastforward to the present day and our department has just booked Mike Gagliano and his Art of Go/No-Go class. I first met Mike a few years ago, when he came to our department for a different class and I am really looking forward to this one. I just watched the one-hour webinar version and I think this is exactly the type of class that would have helped me immensely when I was an acting officer or newly appointed officer. I still need this kind of training, and embrace it as often as it is available to me. Those first few moments of a fire when there is no chief on scene and you must decide what the acceptable level of risk is for your crew at that exact moment is quite intimidating. I am not sure that I will ever feel like I have enough knowledge, training or experience to not be at least a little bit intimidated. I hope that the full class lives up to the title of demonstrating that making those first few critical decisions are more art than science.

“Art” in a title portrays an image of achievement that sets a high bar. The Art of Manliness is aptly named, hilarious, educational and is one of my favorite YouTube channels. The Art of War by Sun Tzu is a centuries old classic that still has valuable lessons in it for today’s world (only to be slightly topped by the sequel, Tournament Poker and The Art of War). I believe that art in this usage portrays a mastery of a subject that can only be the result of continuous work and effort. So, from that standpoint I strive to one day take my skills as a fire officer to the art form. I seriously doubt I will get there (and the guys I work with will all too quickly agree with that statement), but I will at least continue to learn from the art of others every chance I get.


Captain Kirk Galatas began his career as a firefighter with the USAF right out of high school and followed that up with a short stint as a volunteer firefighter. He has have worked for the Mukilteo (WA) fire department for the past 23 years, currently serving in the rank of Captain. Kirk is a charter graduate of the NFA Managing Officer Program and hold a BS in Fire Services Administration from Western Oregon University.