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MSFCA Fire Officers Schools help build your professional networks

I had the great opportunity to be a guest instructor at this year’s MSFCA Fire Officers School in Alexandria and the first annual Fire Officers and Instructors School in Duluth. It is fitting that our organization’s primary mission reflects my passion in developing current and future leaders.

I commend everyone that made this year’s programs a success. Both schools had great attendance; registrations for Duluth neared the 300 mark. Our committee members and staff deserve special recognition and appreciation for their work leading up to and behind the scenes in coordinating instructors, networking events, and focusing on every last detail with precision. Thanks to our vendors for supporting our educational programs and showcasing the newest and best products on the market. Alexandria and Duluth were incredible host cities and I look forward to visiting both again soon.

As an instructor, I am always learning from the attendees in my each of my classes and enjoy the interaction we have on discussing issues impacting the fire service. As you may recall, my last article talked about the value of understanding the unique personality profiles of the members of your team and how you, as a leader, can use this information to build a successful team. To start of the class, we used the PACE® Palette to understand our individual personality types and everyone else in the class. With this information handy, we were able to apply our filters to better understand some of the simple and complex issues we face as organizational leaders. As the class progressed, we dove a little deeper into discussing the modern-era challenges we face in our organizations and collectively as a fire service. To be honest, I wish we had more time as we only scratched the surface.

We all acknowledge that some of the problems we encounter are easily solved whereas others are more complex. In some cases, we are faced with an ethical dilemma in which there is truly no easy “right” or correct answer and we are perplexed as to what to do next. In these cases, don’t be afraid or hesitant to reach out to a colleague for advice. The fire officers and instructor schools are excellent opportunities to network; add as many names and numbers to your phone to build upon your professional network.

I look forward to seeing you at the fall conference in St. Paul and at other MSFCA sponsored events over the next year.

Note: this article appeared in the April digital issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!

The Firefighter Swiss Army Knife

When I was younger, my father accepted a job as a senior executive at the Forschner Group, more commonly known as Victorinox, the manufacturer of the popular Swiss Army knife.  When Christmas came around, I was beyond ecstatic when I unwrapped a brand-new SwissCamp, a multi-function tool that could solve any problem that presented itself.  It had two knives, scissors, pliers, a file, wood saw, magnifying glass, and an assortment of other attachments.  With its distinguished fire engine red color, Victorinox knives gained incredible brand recognition and market value.  It was also “cool” to have one; mine even came engraved with my name.  My multi-function compact toolbox never left my side.

America’s fire service is commonly referred to as the Swiss Army knife of public safety.  Whatever the problem, firefighters have the ability to overcome just about anything.  This skill is refined by training and experience but I also believe it is the unique characteristics of our people that make us incredibly passionate, caring, and talented at what we do.  Firefighters come from diverse backgrounds and often have other full-time or part-time jobs that blend perfectly into the collective knowledge of our departments.  When Mrs. Smith calls, we can solve anything from a leaking pipe, a chirping alarm, or pushing through a smoke filled hallway to find the seat of a fire.

Strong leaders recognize that the most valuable asset of their organization is its people.  Authentic leaders are self-aware, genuine, and lead with their heart, not just their minds.  Successful leaders are able to use the strengths of each member of their team to accomplish their organization’s mission; they coach, mentor, and train the next generation of leaders to lead the organization into the future.

Various temperament and personality tests have shown that people fit into dominant categories.  Some people look for the adrenaline rush in life and seek out extreme activities such as skydiving and rock climbing, and are naturally competitive and extroverts.  Others put great value on authority and rules, traditions, and authority (if the party invitation says 5 p.m., you better not show up late).  Other people are primarily relationship-driven and absolutely despise conflict or hurtful bantering.  I am sure we all know of someone that loves solving technical problems and aren’t afraid to break open (or may have even written) the manual.

I encourage leaders to learn more about their personality profiles and that of the members of their team.  Throughout life, everyone begins to develop their own filter on how they view themselves, their friends/colleagues, and the world.  Firefighters bring a wide variety of skillsets to the “job,” one of the most valuable being their unique approach to solving problems and being part of the team.  By fully understanding our profiles, we can become better communicators and strengthen our team.

For the record, my dominant PACE® Pallet color is blue.

Note: this article appeared in the March/April issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!

New Year’s Resolutions for the Minnesota Fire Service

It’s that time of year again: we wake-up on January 1st excited to start a new year full of self-created promises. The gyms are full, healthy food is flying off the shelves, and people are committing to doing a better job at maintaining a manageable work/life balance. The miraculous ringing-in of the New Year signals a new beginning – an opportunity to charge forward on making progress on the things we just couldn’t get to the day before.

Despite the best of intentions, only about 8%-10% of people actually achieve their New Year’s goals. The once long-sought after goals are either abandoned on the cutting room floor or saved for the following year (because we all know things will be <insert reason> next year).

Fire service professionals are skilled at emergency response tactical goal setting. We are trained and experienced at developing incident action plans (IAPs) on the fly, making split-second decisions that literally mean the difference between life and death, and bringing order to chaos. As a profession, we continually work to evolve our tactics based on proven strategies and data, sharing our successes and lessons learned with colleagues across the country.

As a profession, however, there are a rising number of issues and concerns – the elephants in the corner sort of speak – that we can’t keep punting for a future New Year’s resolution. A few include:

  • The health and wellness of our firefighters (specifically addressing cardiac, cancer, and PTSD);
  • Maintaining service levels for our customers (expecting to do more with less);
  • Recruitment and retention;
  • Funding (despite 21st in population, Minnesota ranks 45th in per-capita despite spending on the fire service);

The big issues many of us face in our organizations are most likely the same or similar across the state and country. Departments are facing an increasing demand for service, especially in EMS, but are often times struggling to maintain staffing levels (volunteer/on-call and career departments alike). Our mission to public service has remained steadfast but we find ourselves continually challenged to find solutions to significant challenges.

Research suggests that our New Year’s resolutions commonly fail because people set too many goals or the goals themselves are unattainable. As a profession, we need to continue to work together so that we have a strong, collective voice in advocating for the needs of the fire service.

As we look to the future and work at achieving our goals, I welcome your feedback and ideas on how we can continue to improve the service to our communities and taking better care of our people. As a member-driven organization, we have incredible resources and talent across the state.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year; and best of luck on tackling your New Year’s resolutions!

Note: this article appeared in the January/February issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. To get your copy, join the MSFCA today!

Thank you

I am extremely thankful and full of gratitude to have been elected to serve as the next President of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association (MSFCA).  I am very humbled for the outpouring of support I received during this election and I am thankful to have the opportunity to pay it forward as the incoming President.

As we approach the 16th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, I find myself reflecting on my journey in the fire service.  I remember every detail of that day: where I was, what I was doing, and the feeling of helplessness while listening to FDNY/NYPD radio transmissions crackle over my radio just over 50 miles away.  The beautiful skyline of New York City was forever changed as a large plume of thick, black smoke was visible from across the sound.

The loss of life, including that of our FDNY brothers, was staggering.  I never would have fathomed being witness to such a disaster.  Despite the tragedy of that day, stories of true bravery, heroism, and patriotism emerged.

A few days after the collapse, I found myself in NYC working alongside my best friend Dominick and a contingent of FDNY and Portland, OR firefighters.  The search and rescue mission was the priority.  We had become a team and, as the daylight faded and night fell, we became friends.

It was at that moment that I truly understood the brotherhood of the fire service.  It was the recognition that public servants are part of a fraternal family that puts service above self.

In January, 2011, three years after moving to Elk River from Connecticut, I had a chance to reconnect with many of the people I met that day in 2001.  The reunion was a visit to see William “Billy” Quick, a 23-year FDNY veteran that led our team.  He had developed lung disease as a result of working countless hours at Ground Zero and was confined to his house on oxygen, 24/7.

Time quickly passed as we shared stories, laughed, and, yes, cried.  Billy gave equal attention to each person and wanted to hear about every detail of our personal and professional lives.  We said our good-byes, each of us looking forward to the next time we would see each other again.  In typical Billy fashion, he left us with us with his iconic parting words of, “stay low and go!”

As I was getting ready to board my flight back to Minnesota, my phone rang.  Billy died.

Billy was a colleague, friend, and mentor.  He was a fireman’s fireman.  He truly cared about others and was proud to see people succeed.  I am forever grateful to the people like Billy in my life – family, friends, and colleagues alike – for their leadership, guidance, and wisdom.  I have been blessed to have been surrounded by incredible people that have inspired, motivated, and pushed me.

The success of the MSFCA is entirely attributed to the collective efforts of the engaged, thoughtful, and spirited members of the Minnesota fire service.  Every firefighter – regardless of rank – is tasked with creating a stronger, more effective Minnesota fire service.  We can continue to accomplish great things by working together.  We must be committed to developing our future leaders and continuing to build on the solid foundation that was provided to us by those that have served before.

I wish to thank Chief Butler for his time and service as Vice President of the Association.  When we both spoke after receiving the election results, Chief Butler and I are equally committed to ensuring the long-term success of the association and its members.

I am eagerly looking forwarding to beginning a new chapter of the MSFCA with Vice President-elect Tom Miller, our board, agents, committee members, and our 2,000+ members.  Chief Miller and I talked at great length yesterday afternoon and are enthusiastic about working together.  We both look forward to hearing from members and welcome open discussion and feedback.  Congratulations, Chief Miller.

I owe a great deal of thanks and appreciation to Steve Koering, my Vice President running mate.  While Chief Koering and I had worked together on a few projects before, most noticeably the Minnesota Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service, we developed a great working relationship during the campaign and recognized that we both share the same servant-leadership philosophy.  I consider Steve a colleague and a great friend.  Thank you, Chief Koering, for your dedication and commitment to the Minnesota fire service.

In closing, I hope that we all can take a moment to reflect on the people that have made a difference in our lives.  Thank you to everyone that has supported me during this campaign and throughout my entire career, especially my fiancé, family, friends, and my Elk River Fire Department team.

I am forever grateful to the many friendships that have been forged and I am very happy to call Minnesota home.  The Minnesota fire service is my family.  Thank you.

Stay low and go.

Cunningham Announces Candidacy for President of Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association

I am pleased and honored to announce my candidacy for the position of President of Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association (MSFCA) for the 2017 election.

I am extremely proud to be a Minnesota firefighter, a Minnesota fire chief, and a nine-year member of the MSFCA, an exceptional organization that is a reflection of the high-caliber of fire service professionals, both volunteer and career. While my fire service beginnings can be traced back to Connecticut where I started as a fire explorer and later became a volunteer firefighter, I am honored to be among the 21,000+ Minnesota firefighters that serve with pride, honor, and compassion.

I believe the strength and success of any organization is directly attributed to its people. The MSFCA is no exception. The association is truly a member-driven organization that is successful because of the dedication, commitment, tenacity, innovation, courage, and leadership of its membership.

It would be my honor and privilege to serve as the next President of the MSFCA. I look forward to carrying forward the tradition of excellence the MSFCA is known for, continuing the collaborative efforts to take care of our firefighters, developing innovative strategies and actionable tasks for recruitment/retention, enhancing the fire service mission, and developing current and future Minnesota fire service leaders.

I welcome open dialog, feedback, engagement, and ideas from our Minnesota firefighters and officers so that we can help pave the path for future generations.

Please check back regularly for updates, announcements, and other important information.  Be sure to follow me on Facebook (@ChiefTJohnCunningham) and Twitter (@TJohnCunningham)!

Our Core Values

Integrity. Professionalism. Honor. Compassion. Dedication.

Those are the core values that are the foundation of our organization. The values are integrated into every strategic and operational decision we make; it is our culture. Every person, from the newest recruit to the fire chief, is expected to live up to these values. There are no exceptions. Period.

When the dispatcher asks, “what is your emergency?” it is just that – an emergency. The person at the other end of the phone is calling for help. It may be the worst day of their life.

When the pager goes off, the priority is that call. Someone needs our help. They expect perfection. We have to deliver. We only have one chance to get it right. There are no second chances. There isn’t a 911 for the 911. We are it.

When we arrive, we go to work. When we step-off the truck, the public is expecting the equivalent of a Superbowl championship. Although this isn’t a game. The stakes are much higher.

We are a team of professional firefighters. We rely on each other to make split-second decisions. There is no room for mediocrity. If we fall, we get up and we keep going. We don’t quit. We can’t quit.

We rely on our training, education, and experience to make quick, calculated decisions and to take action to save lives and to minimize loss. Our number one priority is life safety. Property can be replaced; lives can’t. We will do whatever we can to save a life.

Being a firefighter is not just a job. It’s not a hobby. It is a calling. The badge we wear is a privilege. It is an honor that comes with great responsibility. We are responsible to our community, our brother/sister firefighters, our families, our country, and, ourselves. The responsibility is with us 24/7; we are never really “off-duty.”

In order to be the best, WE, the firefighter, have to be the best. Our minds need to be sharp. Our bodies need to be in great condition. We need to care for ourselves as we would the rarest gemstone on this earth.

I am extremely thankful for the opportunities this profession has given me. As a fire chief with over 19 years of experience, both as a volunteer and now career, this profession is about service. It is about serving the community and those that need our assistance. As a leader, it is about working with and alongside my team to deliver the best possible service to anyone that calls. After the call has ended, I rest when I know my team is home safe.

Chief T. John Cunningham

Firefighter Cancer Registry Act

It was an honor to stand with Senator Amy Klobuchar this morning as she introduced the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act. The registry would improve collection capabilities and activities related to nationwide monitoring among all firefighters to determine if there is a link, and to develop better protective gear and prevention techniques.

Researchers are finding that more than two-thirds of firefighters (68%) develop cancer, compared to about 22% for the general population. This bill is extremely important for the 21,000+ firefighters in Minnesota and across the entire country. We need to take of our own!

Out of the Ashes, A Challenge Arises – Elk River Star News

Elk River Star News
Saturday, September 10, 2016
By Jim Boyle, Editor

Article and video:

Elk River Fire Chief John Cunningham was at Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center to help out with search and recovery efforts.

He saw things, he said, that no one should ever have to see.

“Words just can’t describe that experience,” Cunningham said. “We didn’t take breaks because when we took breaks our minds would start to think, and that’s when the thoughts of how difficult it was and what we’re seeing really started to play on you. We just trucked forward because we had a job to do, and it was an extremely dangerous site.” Submitted photo

John Cunningham, a college student and volunteer firefighter at the time, helped out at Ground Zero after the attack on the World Trade Center.

Cunningham had answered a call to be there. It wasn’t one that went off in this college kid’s car that was rigged with police scanners since he was old enough to drive.

It was, however, those scanners, on which he heard of the attempts to evacuate the World Trade Center. Etched on his mind are the reports of the towers collapsing.
“I remember the maydays come out and just the silence that they couldn’t talk anymore,” Cunningham said.

The call Cunningham answered was more along the lines of the call he sensed growing up, especially after his mother signed him up at the age of 13 for the Sound Beach Volunteer Fire Department’s Explorers program in Greenwich, Connecticut. He grew up there about 30 minutes from New York City, as the crow flies.

It was the same internal call he felt as he rose the ranks as an Explorer and then after he became a volunteer firefighter in 1998 at the age of 18 and continued his ascent.

The same call that led him to seek out a career in public safety, which led him to Elk River in 2009 to become Elk River’s fire chief at the age of 29.

Sept. 11, 2001

As it became apparent on the morning on Sept. 11, 2001, in a computer lab at Fairfield University while combing the internet that the plane crash and subsequent fire at the World Trade Center was no accident, Cunningham politely excused himself to make the trek from the college back to his hometown and the fire station where he was a volunteer firefighter. He needed to be there. He needed to help out.

But that’s not what he’ll be thinking of tomorrow on the 15th anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil in U.S. history.

It will be the bonds that he formed with firefighters from New York City and a department from Portland, Oregon, that took the first available flight after the attack. It will be how Americans rallied to support one another.

And, perhaps most of all, it will be the short trek he and fellow Sound Beach volunteer firefighter Dominick Briganti made at the end of that long shift sifting through concrete rubble in desperate hopes of finding public safety and civilian survivors.

The sun was setting as the last rays of sunlight lit a silhouette of what remained of the twin towers as he and Briganti looked back to see smoke rising from the ruins.

“I remember Dominick and I taking a solemn walk out of the site,” Cunningham said. “We didn’t really speak. Words didn’t need to be spoken. We knew what we saw and what happened.”

The street, normally a bustling thoroughfare into the city was desolate. Behind them the shift change was happening. People were getting into position. Emergency and work crews were entering their night mode.

As Cunningham and Briganti rounded a corner, what they saw next took their breath away.  “It was a spectacular showing of patriotism. We saw thousands of the people. Young and old. Men and women that were holding flags. Holding signs that said ‘God bless the United States.’ Signs of thanks,” Cunningham said. “I remember thinking, ‘Who are they cheering for? Who’s this for?’ I remember looking around and there’s no one else standing there, it’s just us.

“As a firefighter I don’t do it for the thanks. We don’t. We’re the ones when the bell goes off when someone could be having the worst day of their life and we’re there to comfort them and solve the problem. I was just taken back. I had never seen that happen before.”

In spite of everything that was happening in the country, he said, it was a reminder that we’re Americans. We’re a community. We support one another. Neighbors, fellow Americans, were standing there saying thank you to first responders.

“To me, I didn’t deserve the thanks. It was the hundreds of firefighters that lost their life. I was awestruck.”

What Cunningham will be thinking and talking about on Sept. 11, 2016, is a young girl that broke free from the barricade, ducked underneath caution tape and ran up to both of them and handed them a blue ribbon that said, “Who I am makes a difference.”

“That moment I will never forget because it’s true,” Cunningham said. “Every single person can make an impact on the life of someone else; regardless of how small (an) act of kindness might seem, it can make the biggest difference in the lives of others.”

Cunningham bought a box of these ribbons for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in the first few years as the Elk River Fire chief and gave them to Elk River Police officers, firefighters and other emergency personnel.

This year’s headlines got him thinking about the ribbons again. As the 15th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, approached, the headlines got more troubling, patriotism had dipped, and he felt a need to do something.

“I remember watching the news unfold and seeing the death count rise as the news broke that there was an active shooter in a nightclub that was targeting gays,” Cunningham said. “For me that hurt.
As a gay man, Cunningham found himself incensed. In talking to others about the Orlando shooting, the killing of Dallas police officers and the stories behind other tragic headlines, a host of issues – from bullying, discrimination, racial tension and socioeconomic disparities and addictions – came up.

“These are real issues that affect real people,” Cunningham said. “We need to get back on track as a country to acknowledge that we have much more in common with one another than differences.”
He wants people to recognize those around them who make a positive difference in their life.

“This is a message that needs to continue forward,” he said. “I realized on that day (I was given my blue ribbon) and that moment that everyone can make a difference in the lives of others. It was a small spur of the moment decision that girl made, but 15 years later I remember it and I remember the feeling and impact it had on me. The actions of one person can make a difference.”

Cunningham sat in front of video cameras this past week at Elk River Fire Station 2 to record a challenge for all 23,000 members of the Elk River community. It reads like this:

“As the community’s fire chief, I am issuing a challenge to everyone that calls Elk River home — that we empower people to live, dream and succeed in a culture of appreciation, respect and love. Let Elk River serve as a beacon of hope worldwide, because this is a fire that we never want to put out.

“So join me on this challenge to acknowledge people who have made an impact on your life and share those stories with me and our community and the world.”

The chief asks Elk River residents to visit to learn how they can meet this challenge. Information will also be available on the city’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages at erblueribbon.

Cunningham’s hope is that people share their stories by using the hashtag “erblueribbon.”

The Star News will tell stories in the coming editions about someone Cunningham gave a ribbon to and one person in his life he wished he had given a ribbon to before she died.
And as the challenge unfolds, the Star News will consider telling your stories, too, about the difference makers in the lives of Elk River residents.

Social media hashtag: #ERBlueRibbon

VIDEO – 9/11 Firefighter Brings Blue Ribbon Challenge To Elk River: WCCO

WCCO’s Bill Hudson interviews Chief T. John Cunningham about the Elk River Blue Ribbon Challenge.

WCCO – Minneapolis
Saturday, September 10, 2016
By Bill Hudson, Reporter


ELK RIVER, Minn. (WCCO) — Elk River fire chief John Cunningham needs look only at the photographs on his office wall to feel the flood of emotions.

“We were in the middle of the collapse zone, so we were right in the middle of ground zero,” said Cunningham.

Cunningham was a 21-year-old volunteer firefighter in Connecticut when he was pressed into service after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that shocked the nation.

“At that moment I realized that this is where I need to be,” Cunningham recalls.

He and many of his fellow firefighters were among countless first responders who searched through the rubble and remains of ground zero.

“The iconic twin towers that once were there weren’t there anymore. All you saw was smoke rising from a pile of rubble,” Cunningham said.

Now the chief of Elk River’s fire department, with a volunteer force of 45 people, Cunningham is still haunted by the sights no rookie firefighter would ever forget.

“We knew walking in that there was firefighters that were lost,” says the chief.

But it was at the end of one of his long shifts at ground zero when the darkness was stripped away from all the doom. That’s the moment he and a fellow firefighter, Dominic Briganti, were surprised by a crowd’s patriotic applause and a little girl’s big gift.

“A young girl broke free and ducked underneath a barricade, ran up to both Dominic and myself, gave us a hug and gave us a blue ribbon that said, ‘Who I am makes a difference,’” Cunningham said.

Cunningham now wants blue ribbons pinned on all of Elk River’s 23,000 residents. He and others in the city have created the Elk River Blue Ribbon challenge. The idea is to recognize the countless gestures and deeds performed each day that make it a community that cares.

“A lot of times we take for granted the little things that  people do and we don’t necessarily say thanks, and maybe we don’t know the words,” Cunningham said.

Simple little gestures of helping others in times of need — building a fire, kindled by blue ribbons, that no evil will ever put out.

“It’s kindness and generosity that really makes this world the world it is,” Cunningham said.

For more information on the Elk River Blue Ribbon Challenge: The city encourages people to share their stories online and via social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) using @ERBlueRibbon and #ERBlueRibbon.

Chief Cunningham launches Blue Ribbon Challenge in Elk River

When Elk River Fire Chief T. John Cunningham was leaving Ground Zero in September, 2001, a young girl broke from the crowd and presented him a blue ribbon which was inscribed with, “Who I am Makes a Difference”®.  Fifteen years later, Chief Cunningham is carrying forward that act of recognition and kindness through a campaign in Elk River which is launching on September 11, 2016.

“While the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, will be forever etched in our minds and our hearts, the tragedy of that day showed the world that America is strong, patriotic, and united,” says Cunningham.  “The blue ribbon has been a constant reminder to me that every act of kindness and generosity is what makes our country and world a better place.”

The Elk River Blue Ribbon Challenge is a groundswell campaign to acknowledge people in the community that make a difference every day.  “I am challenging every person that calls Elk River home to acknowledge someone in their life that has made a difference.  All too often we fail to acknowledge the goodness we see in others.  This is an opportunity to change that.” The “Who I am Makes a Difference”® Blue Ribbon Ceremony was founded by Helice “Sparky” Bridges, affectionately known as Grandma Sparky.  The Blue Ribbon Acknowledgement Message has impacted over 40 million people worldwide and has been credited for eradicating bullying, averting suicide, enhancing self-esteem, connecting people heart-to-heart, and making dreams come true.  The Elk River Blue Ribbon Challenge is the first community-wide initiative working to achieve Grandma Sparky’s goal: 1 Billion People Honored… 1 Billion Dreams Coming True by 2020.

The Elk River Blue Ribbon Challenge encourages people to share their stories online at and via social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) using @ERBlueRibbon and #ERBlueRibbon.  The goal is to capture stories of hope, inspiration, acknowledgement, and empowerment.