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FDIC 2019 Quick Take: Building a fire service legacy

Famed fire illustrator Paul Combs encourages firefighters to use their passion to inspire greatness in moments big and small to leave a mark on the fire service


Famed fire illustrator Paul Combs, a lieutenant with the Bryan, Ohio, Fire Department likened the formation of a legacy in the fire department to the construction of a brick-and-mortar fire department, built one brick at a time with care, skill and expertise.

Photo/Kerri Hatt

INDIANAPOLIS — Exhibitors are bustling about constructing booths, dressing mannequins and raising aerials, but the educational portion of FDIC 2019 has begun in earnest.

Famed fire illustrator Paul Combs, a lieutenant with the Bryan, Ohio, Fire Department, took the stage for Wednesday’s keynote address. Combs likened the formation of a legacy in the fire department to the construction of a brick-and-mortar fire department, built one brick at a time with care, skill and expertise.

The firefighters who have gone before us, those whose photos grace station walls and whose stories are told around the station table, are the giants upon whose shoulders we stand, he emphasized.

“Each of us was handed a brick when we started our fire service journey, so we could add to the walls they have built,” Combs said.

Key quotes on building your legacy in the fire service

Here are some of the quotes that stood out during Combs’ keynote address.

  • “We never know the impact we are having on others.”
  • “Sometimes, it’s the little things we do that make the biggest impact on others.”
  • “It is our sacred duty to leave the fire service better than we found it, and we found it pretty darned good.”
  • “What will your legacy be when it’s all said and done and you walk out for the last time.”

Top takeaways on FDIC keynote

Following are the top takeaways from the opening ceremony keynote from Paul Combs:

1. Inspiration: pass it on

Combs noted his dream of standing on the keynote stage at FDIC began years ago when he listened to Ret. Chief Richard Lasky, of the Lewisville, Texas, Fire Department, speak about pride and ownership from the back of the very same ballroom he presented in today. That session “changed my life,” Combs told attendees. “Someday I wanted to be just like him; I wanted to be making a difference with my passion.”

Leaders like Chief Lasky have inspired so many others with their passion, Combs related.

Though Combs shared that he is not a natural-born presenter, and in fact is terrified by public speaking, he has conquered his fear to share his passion.

“I cannot move mountains with the written word, but what I can do is draw,” he said. “There is absolutely nothing special about me. Because I gave my passion to the symbol it has given me everything.”

Share your talents to inspire other in the fire service in your own way, he underscored.

2. Little moments have a big impact

It’s often the little moments that make the biggest difference, Combs related. He recalled an incident when his department was called for a dog trapped on a frozen pond. They arrived to find the dog, dragging a chain, chasing geese. As the animal was in no apparent danger, the crew took the opportunity to set up a cold water rescue drill.

While some firefighters suited up in PPE, set up extensive rigging and began the trek across the frozen surface, the animal darted for the shoreline, where a feeding stream had melted the ice. As she tried to leap the gap, the chain tangled, and she fell into the water and was dragged under the ice.

A simple animal rescue to him, the save meant so much more to the dog’s owners. We all love going to structure fires, Combs noted, but sometimes, it’s the lift assist for the elderly woman who just can’t get up on her own, or checking out a chirping CO monitor to put a family’s fears to rest in the middle of the night, or just saying a kind word to a fellow firefighter—saying it and meaning it—that makes the biggest difference in someone else’s life, Combs advised.

3. Make your impact today

Combs shared his dream of presenting the FDIC keynote with a colleague and friend, Edward “E.J.” Mascaro. The two often instructed together and critiqued each other’s presentations.

Mascaro, 34, a North Charleston, South Carolina, firefighter, died after his vehicle crashed into a tractor-trailer in 2017. Combs emotionally described his friend, a decorated veteran, as an American hero with an energetic teaching style, a curiosity to learn as much as possible, and a unique ability to rouse his peers with relentless pranks and wit.

“We often spoke about what it would be like to share this stage someday,” Combs said, as he held Mascaro’s turnout coat name plate. “After he died, I didn’t know if I wanted to be up here without him. I knew he would want me to do this for no other reason that he could be here, too. So I brought him with me.”

We owe nothing less than passion, passion, passion to E.J. and all the others like him who are no longer with us, Combs stressed: “We were all handed a brick when we started our fire department journey. Some of us took it to the wall, placed it firmly in mortar and said ‘give us another.’”

“I’m handing you a brick today. Just like E.J. … you may not have tomorrow. My brothers and sisters, take your brick and build on that wall.”

Top tweets from FDIC opening ceremonies

Kerri Hatt is editor-in-chief, EMS1, responsible for defining original editorial content, tracking industry trends, managing expert contributors and leading execution of special coverage efforts. Prior to joining Lexipol, she served as an editor for medical allied health B2B publications and communities. Kerri has a bachelor’s degree in English from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is based out of Charleston, SC. Share your personal and agency successes, strategies and stories with Kerri at