The term "firefighter" conjures up images of heroes in flame resistant suits racing to save people trapped in burning buildings. That's still a big part of the job. But today's firefighters deal with a wide range of emergency situations. Oak Creek Fire Chief Tom Rosandich, a 1980 graduate of Milwaukee Area Technical College's fire science associate degree program, has dealt with a significant number of challenging incidents during his 34-year career as a firefighter.
Last summer, he and his staff responded to a tragedy that became international news – the Sikh Temple shooting in Oak Creek, which left four injured and seven dead. The Oak Creek Fire Department worked with many representatives of local police and federal authorities throughout the incident. "Cooperation within the region is paramount for large-scale incidents like this one was," Rosandich said. "As a team, we pull from each other's strengths. Each major event is unique in character and design. This one will be part of our landscape for a long time to come."
Technology, Social Media Pose New Challenges
Rosandich explained: "Since the September 11 attacks, and the establishment of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, all fire and police service has changed drastically." Responding to terrorist threats adds to the responsibility all fire departments face in keeping their communities safe. Also, the immediacy and intensity of widespread coverage of emergency incidents by members of the news media as well as individuals posting on Facebook and Twitter have added to the challenges. "Technology has advanced so quickly," Rosandich said. "Now we live in a world of instant data and social media." Managing communications is now a large part of his role as fire chief.
In 1978, Rosandich began his job as an on-call fireman in Oak Creek and also enrolled in MATC's fire science program. At that time, classes were held on the Downtown Milwaukee Campus and at the Fire Academy on Teutonia Avenue.
"I liked my education at MATC," Rosandich said. "We got into the 'meat and potatoes' of firefighting right away. I could apply my training to what I was doing on the job immediately." Rosandich said he was one of the first in the Oak Creek Fire Department to earn an associate degree in the field. Today, a "good majority" of Oak Creek firefighters have been trained at MATC. Many now teach in the program as well.
Rosandich worked his way up the ranks, serving as assistant fire chief for 13 years, and then acting fire chief for a year. In May 2012, he was promoted to chief. He is the longest-serving member of the Oak Creek Fire Department. As a beginning firefighter, he served with friends' parents who looked out for him as he learned the ropes. Now he supervises and works with many of his friends' children.
Rosandich (l) and a co-worker at a roof ventilation training exercise.
Earned Master's Degree in Disaster Preparedness
After graduating from MATC, Rosandich earned a bachelor's degree in public administration from Upper Iowa University. He recently completed a master's degree in leadership with an emphasis in disaster preparedness and executive fire leadership from Grand Canyon University. The degree is offered online, bringing together classmates from all around the world. Rosandich jokingly refers to earning a "master's in disasters" which seems fitting given the experiences he's dealt with while working for the Oak Creek Fire Department.
"I liked my education at MATC. We got into the 'meat and potatoes' of
firefighting right away. I could apply my training to what I was doing on the job immediately."
-- Tom Rosandich
Part of the reason he's seen so many major incidents is because Oak Creek is home to so many entities with potential for accidents. "Oak Creek is the third largest city in Milwaukee County," he explained. "It's 28-and-a-half square miles. It's not just a bedroom community. Oak Creek is home to a major airport and a power plant. Trains and a freeway run through the city."
Rosandich (l) watches as the Greenfield police chief speaks at a press conference following the
Sikh Temple shooting in Oak Creek. (Photo from The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Rosandich has dealt with incidents as a result of each of these. He responded to the Midwest Express Flight 105 that crashed on takeoff in 1985, killing all 31 people onboard. He was the first Oak Creek firefighter to call for a Flight for Life helicopter as the service was being introduced in the 1980s. He's dealt with a mudslide, an explosion and a $1.8 million tunnel fire, all related to the WE Energies power plant in Oak Creek. Rosandich and his co-workers responded to the 2009 Patrick Cudahy meatpacking plant fire which burned for days and involved 66 fire departments. He has faced anthrax scares, an electrocution, a pedestrian on the freeway and has testified at murder trials.
He copes with the magnitude of these emergencies by breaking the tasks into manageable pieces. "I call it 'eating the elephant, one bite at a time,'" he said.
While new technology and ever developing emergency management strategies help Rosandich grow in his position, he looks back at his time at MATC as a foundation of his training. "The basics of incident command were just getting legs when I was in school," he said. "Follow-up classes and training at MATC are all interwoven into my memory bank."
Rosandich talks with a passerby at a house fire training exercise.