EAST TAWAS – East Tawas Fire Department (ETFD) Assistant Chief Eric Abbott has a lot on his plate when it comes to his ambitions and career – and he is preparing to add yet another item to this list.
One of only three other individuals north of Oakland County, he has been accepted to the 2021 Fire Staff and Command Executive Leadership Program, through Eastern Michigan University’s (EMU) Center for Regional and National Security.
The intensive experience will consist of 42 individual classes, spanning the next eight months, and is set to kick off in a few weeks at the Ypsilanti campus.
“This will be the 23rd class of Staff and Command,” Abbott says. As long as social distancing requirements do not prolong the start of class, this year’s academy will begin Feb. 8 and end on Oct. 8. “Each month I will attend one week of class. It will be a grueling year, but worth it in the end, I’m sure.”
Abbott somehow manages to balance an exceptionally busy schedule and, upon completion of this program, he will be able to utilize what he has learned for not only in his duties with the ETFD, but in several other areas, as well.
In addition to his role as assistant fire chief in East Tawas, he is also the Iosco County Emergency Management Coordinator.
Furthermore, the knowledge he will gain during the leadership program will be of use to him as he continues serving the Grant Township Fire Department.
“I was born and raised in Tawas City and Tawas Township. I moved away for several years and then moved back in 2013 to Sand Lake,” he says. “I immediately joined Grant Township Fire Department and have been an active member ever since. My family and I still live in Sand Lake.”
Firefighting, and all things related, are clearly entrenched in Abbott’s lifestyle. As for how this came to be, he shared that he started a little later in life than many others in the fire service do, and he didn’t become a firefighter until the age of 26.
“My wife and I were in college in Kentucky. A friend of mine and I decided to join the local fire department. During one of my very first calls we were setting up a landing zone for a trauma victim and one of the department Captains looked at me and said, ‘You’re either going to love this job, or hate it,’” Abbott describes. “I’ve never hated it a day in my life. Since then I’ve been on local departments in each community I’ve lived; Kentucky, the Upper Peninsula, and here.”
As if that weren’t enough to satisfy his love of this field, he also works for Insurance Services Office (ISO). He says that his job, in a nutshell, is to travel around the state of Michigan, inspect fire departments and communities and evaluate their efficiency.
It was through ISO that he ended up joining the fire department in East Tawas, in March 2015. He said he had evaluated the ETFD earlier that year and found that the department was very well-run and organized, and he wanted to be involved. A couple years in, he applied for the assistant chief position and was approved.
Now, he has set his sights on expanding his fire education, via EMU’s Fire Staff and Command Executive Leadership Program.
Abbott says that while there are similar schools or academies in Michigan and throughout the country, the EMU program caught his attention.
“I had heard wonderful reports of this particular school and wanted to be part of it. The Executive Leadership Board includes our State Fire Marshall, Kevin Sehlmeyer, the Fire Commissioner for Detroit Fire Department, Eric Jones, and even the Public Safety Liaison for BELFOR Property Restoration, a world-wide company with close ties to the fire service. Sheldon Yellen, the CEO of BELFOR, is a Michigan Native, has attended Michigan State Fire Chief’s meetings, and enthusiastically supports Michigan firefighters,” Abbott states.
The Executive Board also includes fire chiefs and chief officers from several well-known and progressive departments in the state, he continued, such as the West Bloomfield, Auburn Hills and Grand Traverse Metro fire departments. “I couldn’t expect to learn under any better leadership and vision for the future than a crack team like these men and women.”
Although this class is not a requirement for Abbott as part of his duties with the departments he serves in Iosco County, he shared that he applied, crossed his fingers and was accepted.
He threw his hat into the ring this past December, and soon got word back that he was among those selected for the program.
ETFD Chief Bill Deckett referred to this as an exciting opportunity for his assistant chief. He advised that the program teaches fire officers management skills, decision-making on the fire ground and provides skills to effectively control, direct and supervise personnel under their command. It entails a huge time commitment, consisting of both in-class lessons and homework.
“It is really a huge step for leaders in the fire service,” Deckett says, adding that it is a difficult process to be accepted. “This year, only three firefighters from northern Michigan made it into the class.”
Along with Abbott, the only students north of Oakland County who will take part in the 2021 program are a lieutenant from the Alpena Fire Department and a lieutenant from the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department.
In order to apply, Abbott explains that one must be a command officer, or an officer who is on track to become a command officer. In total, this year’s class will be comprised of 41 officers.
Based on literature about the leadership opportunity, this is a comprehensive program consisting of 350 hours of classroom instruction that will require out of class study, preparation of papers, projects and examinations. The program is dynamic, on the forefront of technology and it will enhance the performance of personnel in command positions, through a number of ways.
The curriculum features six major topic areas intended to address the changing needs of the public safety community. These are leadership, planning and decision-making, human resources management, critical situations and homeland security, administering the fire agency and managing technology for public safety.
According to the program outline, some of the items which will be covered within these six areas are personal and organizational communication; leadership development; operational and strategic planning; policy writing and implementation; standards and fire prevention; grant writing; incident safety officer training; performance management; employee development; ethics in the fire service; emergency management and critical incidents in tactical situations; fire ground operations; budgeting; employee wellness; labor law and legal issues in the fire service; and various software education.
When asked if there is anything Abbott is most interested in learning about, he answered that it is difficult to pick just one.
However, he states that the operational and strategic planning sounds very interesting, as well as ethics in the fire service. “But there are several more topics that will benefit our community on several levels, such as Policy Writing and Implementation, Grant Writing, Budgeting, Employee Wellness, and the list goes on. Some topics are more interesting because they spark a fire in me to become a better firefighter, and others are motivating because our communities can always benefit from more education and information that help us grow and improve.”
As for the $3,250 tuition cost, Abbott says there are programs in place to help cover some of this. If a community is a member of the Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority (MMRMA), he can complete an application requesting the MMRMA to cover a significant portion. “The remainder of the tuition cost would have to be covered by the MMRMA member. If this doesn’t work out, I will look for other arrangements.”
Considering the long drive to Ypsilanti, Abbott will be staying in the area several days at a time, for the duration of the program.
“Each month, I will attend all-day classes downstate for five days in a row,” he said, also referencing the fact that he can’t drive downstate and back for an eight-hour class every day.
“When I mentioned this to the fire chief of Springfield Township, he offered me the opportunity to apply to his fire department, become a member, and spend my evenings at their fire department sleeping in their crew quarters,” Abbott states. “Because I will technically be a member on their department, I will be free to attend their trainings and join them on fire calls when I can. I’m sure my eyes will be opened to another aspect of the fire service. It’s a learning opportunity that can benefit all our local departments.”
Chief Deckett says that Abbott will be able to use the skills learned in the program to move both the ETFD and Iosco County Emergency Management forward.
Abbott confirmed that what he takes away from the school will be of benefit to him in the emergency management aspect, as well.
“This school is part EMU’s Center for Regional and National Security. This fits directly into the Emergency Management program,” he elaborated. “As an ‘Executive Leadership Program’ this academy focuses on leadership in any and all emergency situations, not only the fire service.”
As for why he wanted to take part in this opportunity, Abbott shares that as he travels for his job, he gets the chance to meet many of Michigan’s finest firefighters and departments.
“I have met several fire officers on different departments that are graduates of this school. When fire departments like Grand Rapids, Novi, Dearborn Heights, Farmington Hills, and Alpena are sending their members to this school, you know it’s a high caliber program,” he states.
“Through my job, I have come to know the Fire Chief of Springfield Township Fire Department in Oakland County. He is one of the instructors of this academy and I learned quite a bit concerning how beneficial this education could be to our community,” Abbott adds. “I knew the content of this academy would bring new leadership concepts and vision that will benefit both of my current fire departments, and ultimately all of Iosco County through my role in Emergency Management.”