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THMG054 – Interview with Dr. Denis Onieal, Deputy Director of the U.S. Fire Administration (Part I)


In the first episode of this two-part series, we discuss hazmat and firefighting with Dr. Denis Onieal, Deputy Director of the U.S. Fire Administration.

Complete Show Notes

1:10 Introduction to Dr. Denis Onieal

  • Refers to himself as “the most dangerous man in America”
  • Started firefighting when he came home from being in the Army – his father was also a firefighter
  • Wasn’t something that interested him initially, and he didn’t expect to do it for the rest of his life
  • Assigned to a ladder company and went to school on the G.I. Bill – earned his bachelor’s degree at New Jersey City University
  • Promoted to lieutenant around the time he finished his bachelor’s degree and was then assigned to a different ladder company in the city
  • Promoted to captain and then started a doctorate in education at New York University – promoted to battalion chief and deputy chief a few years later
  • NYU asked him to come back and teach education classes in their doctoral program, which he did for around 5 years
  • Then, he became acting chief of the department and superintendent of the National Fire Academy
  • After that job, he became the deputy fire administrator
  • Doctorate in education, master’s in public administration, and bachelor’s in fire

5:45 Dr. Onieal’s Role

  • Managing in a democracy – consider a variety of different points of view while remembering you can’t make everybody happy
  • Fundamentally, though, we’re all facing the same issues – this is important to remember
  • The federal government relies heavily on his department for assistance

10:05 Differences in Fire and Hazmat

  • Firefighters and hazmats all have different concerns based upon where they’re working (i.e. Hawaii vs. Alaska)
  • There are also different personality types within each fire or hazmat team – curmudgeon, comedian, cook, etc.

11:10 Dr. Onieal’s Role Models

  • Believes you need several role models – professional, contemporary, aspirational, parent, marriage, etc.
  • His role models include:
    • Dr. Jim Klein – FDNY firefighter and teacher at New Jersey City University who encouraged many firefighters to pursue higher education; learned a lot about management, patience, and vision
    • Chief Ernie Mitchell – great logic and thoroughness who brings perspective to government Dr. Onieal hasn’t seen before because he’s worked in a variety of industries
    • Dave Paulison – came up through the ranks in Florida and was eventually the FEMA director and picked up the pieces after Hurricane Katrina
    • Craig Fugate – current FEMA administrator with excellent communication and problem-solving skills

17:30 Dr. Onieal’s Significant Accomplishments

  • Professional development of the fire and emergency services – started this after he became superintendent of the National Fire Academy and has been working on it for 15-plus years
  • Looked at other professions and tried to figure out what they did to bring themselves to professional status
  • Education, training, experience, and continuing education – identifies these as the four steps key to professionalizing firefighting
  • Worked with 96 colleges and universities around the country to standardize 2- and 4-year fire degrees – all fire textbook publishers now publish to those standard curriculums and the syllabi are all the same
  • We already have training for firefighter 1-3 and hazmat tech 1-4
  • Experience involves taking your education and your training and applying that to new or existing problems
  • Continuing education includes attending seminars, reading magazines, keeping up with the latest technologies, etc.

22:00 Dr. Onieal’s Superpower

  • Growing up in a place where there’s a lot of racial diversity and learning to read people very quickly
  • Knows how to get along with people, understand their motivations, and take care of business
  • Two ways you can learn things: the hard way and the easy way
  • The hard way is trying to do things on your own and purporting that you know how to do everything – you always get punished for this and the tuition is very high
  • Dr. Onieal always tries to learn from the mistakes of others, which he refers to as a scholarship

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