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onieal portraitFire Service Leadership Profiles — Dr. Denis Onieal
Guest blog written by Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.)

The recent passing of fire service legend Fire Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini was followed by an incredible outpouring of condolences for the Brunacini family and the fire service around the globe. The posts on social media and on fire service websites provided an incredible array of stories, reminisces and a genuine love for the man who taught us how to be a fire ground commander and he also introduced us to “Mrs. Smith.” And he took the title of “King of the Hawaiian Shirt” away from Tom Selleck, aka, Magnum, P.I.

In this first installment of Profiles in Fire Service Leadership, I’ve been given the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the leadership provided to the fire service by someone who is still very much with us all, Dr. Denis Onieal. Because why should we wait until someone is no longer alive to reflect on how they’ve enriched our noble profession through their words and deeds?

In the most current chapter of his fire service career, Dr. Onieal was appointed to the position of Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator for the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) in May 2015. As the Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator, he is responsible for managing the U.S. Fire Administration and the programs and training activities at the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Maryland (Home of the National Fire Academy).

But before that, he was a firefighter. Dr. Onieal joined the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department in 1971 and rose through that department’s ranks to the position of deputy chief, then acting chief in 1995, where he led a uniformed force of 620 firefighters and officers. He spent his entire time “in the street” as a line fire officer (To this day, Dr. Onieal still takes pride in saying, “I’m just a truckie from Jersey who caught a few breaks”).

You Make Your Own Breaks
Dr. Onieal is by nature a modest man. The path that led him to his current position at USFA was largely shaped by “out-of-the-box” thinking on his part. See, Dr. Onieal was a “college boy” in the fire service before it was “cool”. While “on the job”, he earned a Bachelor of Science degree from New Jersey City University in 1976 and followed that with a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1978.

In 1990, he became “Dr. Onieal” by completing his Doctor of Education degree through New York University. He taught in the master and doctorate programs in education at NYU for five years and in the ensuing years has written numerous articles pertinent to the fire service.

The Move to Emmitsburg
In 1995, Dr. Onieal moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland upon his appointment as the Superintendent of the National Fire Academy (NFA). With Dr. Onieal’s leadership, the NFA expanded its outreach programs to work more closely with state and local training agencies. Those efforts resulted in an increase in NFA training deliveries—both on and off campus—from 15,000 students in 1995 to 110,000 students in 2015.

During Dr. Onieal’s tour of duty at NFA, all NFA courses were revised to include college credit recommendation and continuing education units for both resident and off-campus course deliveries.
More importantly, Dr. Onieal became the “face of NFA”. If you were on campus at NFA for any length of time, you were likely to see Dr. Onieal in the halls outside of classrooms, in the Dining Hall, or walking the beautifully landscaped grounds of the Emmitsburg campus.

And you would likely not just see him. If he saw you, and had met you before, he’d likely greet you by name like a long-lost relative or friend. During my first on-campus course delivery of a State Weekend Training Program on Saturday morning there was a knock on the classroom door. When I opened the door, who should I see? A grinning Dr. Onieal outfitted in a neatly pressed button-down oxford shirt, jeans, and Sperry Top-Siders.

Said the good Doctor, “Hi Bob. The Missus asked me to go out to the store for some bread and milk and I thought I’d stop by and see how things were going. Do you need anything?” He then proceeded to query the class to see how their NFA experience was going and if they needed anything or had any issues (This was in the day when the quality of pillows in the dorms were a hot topic of discussion!).

NFA Goes Digital
Dr. Onieal provided the leadership and guidance for the NFA staff to take fire service training and education into the digital age. The NFA’s on-line training programs provided on-line and free training for over 45,000 students in 2014. The NFA now offers courses from 10 minutes to 10 days in vast array of professional development topics for fire, EMS, and emergency management personnel, depending upon the students’ needs.

Being a “College Boy/Girl” Becomes “Cool”
Also on Dr. Onieal’s watch, the NFA launched the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) initiative. Working with the coordinators of two-year and four-year academic fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) management degree programs at over 100 colleges and universities, the NFA and its partners standardized the associate and bachelor degree curriculum across the nation. Thanks in part to FESHE, firefighters earning their undergraduate and graduate degrees while on-the-job has become commonplace in the U.S.

Dr. Onieal led USFA’s team response to the World Trade Center in 2001, working behind the scenes to help the New York City Fire Department re-establish systems of command, control and on-site communications. In 2005, he was sent to Atlanta, Georgia, to lead the in-processing, training and dispatch of 4,000 firefighters to assist in the response to Hurricane Katrina.

In March 2015, Dr. Onieal was awarded the James O. Page EMS Achievement Award from the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ EMS Section. This award honors those who demonstrate professionalism, a drive for excellence, and exemplary performance and leadership.

In April 2015, the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) awarded Dr. Onieal the CFSI/Motorola Solutions Mason Lankford Fire Service Leadership Award. The award recognizes individuals who are proactive at the local, state and federal government levels to improve and advance fire/emergency services and life safety issues.

From January 2017 through August 2017, Dr. Onieal served as Acting U.S. Fire Administrator until G. Keith Bryant was sworn in as the new U.S. Fire Administrator.

What a remarkable man, no? I think it’s safe to say that any of us would have taken just one chapter out of the Denis Onieal “Book of Accomplishments” and called it a great career. But then we wouldn’t have been following his example to the fullest, would we?

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Robert Avsec

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state, and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. Since his retirement in 2007, he has continued to be a life-long learner working in both the private and public sectors to further develop his “management sciences mechanic” credentials. He makes his home near Charleston, W.Va.