Saturday, February 26, 2011

A War Horse’s Perspective

Joining the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge last year as a prize sponsor, Paul Conway Shields is the recognized industry leader. Competitors who have placed at Regional, National and World events have taken home unique mounted shields, ready for display in a myriad of locations ranging from their dens to fire academy walls. Wanting to get a glimpse behind the scenes, I visited the Paul Conway Shields headquarters in New Berlin, WI this past Thursday.

I asked Paul Conway how he got started in the shield business. Like a lot of small businessmen and as a young fireman with the Milwaukee Fire Department he saw a need in the field and believed he could do better for the men and women in the fire service. Starting out in his parents’ basement he did just that by a long shot. Waiting for up to 12 weeks for an order to arrive was the impetus to “build the better mouse trap.” It’s not a terribly complicated manufacturing process. You take leather hides and use dies to cut them to their final shape. Layers are sewn together and graphics added, as specified by the customer. Although some of the process is now automated, much of it is done like it was done 25 years ago, BY HAND. You can choose from a wide variety of web-based templates that include colors of all sort, badges, numbers, passports, and mounting configurations. (

But far more interesting than the mechanics of making fire helmet shields was the conversation that I had with Paul about the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge and his participation a few years back when we held a Challenge in Janesville. Coming straight from work at the Milwaukee Fire Department, Paul and his buddies arrived to what would be the unexpected sight of firefighters warming up on Keiser bikes and a wide assortment of “very serious guys.”

I think that this impression is hugely important because it typifies the mindset and attitudes of a lot of firefighters. But the big difference is that to Paul, this was not a deterrent. He thought through the whole process logically and rather than heading to the exits; he rationalized, “this is just stuff that I do every day on the job.” And he paced himself through the course, ending up on his feet and thinking, “That wasn’t so bad. What’s the big deal?”

The unprompted brand recognition of the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge is nearly universal in the fire service. If you haven’t heard of the Challenge, you’re not likely to be moving up the career ladder. But what continues to be mystifying is the reticence to come out and participate. We may be the collective victims of our own success. By that I mean that we have conjured up images in the minds of many that only the super-human can play- this sport is not for the ordinary.

Many years ago when I ran my first Marine Corps Marathon, I had no illusions that I would win, or place. But I was pretty sure that I could finish. How far back in the pack was the only question. And that’s been pretty much the way it’s been for any of the road races in which I participated. I run my own race against my own PR. The preponderance of firefighters is likewise racing against themselves or some sub-category of friends or rivals. There’s not a lot of room on the top of the podium in any sport. But the camaraderie within this sport is directly proportional to the intensity of attempting to do what is a reasonable facsimile of structural firefighting, but do it in an insanely short period of time.

There have been a lot of first timers who have come out thinking that they could ace this thing, only to flame out at the top of the tower, or 20 meters short on the runway. It wasn’t that they couldn’t do it, but that they failed to pace themselves and the gas tank went empty too soon. You really need to get one on the books to get a sense of how to strategically attack the course. Finishing is hugely important and invaluable as a reference point for future races.

Next month at the FDIC, Paul Conway with 26 years on and most recently promoted to Assistant Chief of MFD, will be back on the course. He believes in leading from the front and has a great sense of the importance and benefits of firefighter fitness. Clearly actions speak louder than words here.

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