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Joining peers in Poland, local fire chief takes lessons of Auschwitz to heart

Jonathan McMahan, Rural/Metro Fire Department chief in Pima County, was recently in Poland as one of seven U.S. fire chiefs invited to present a symposium on American firefighting expertise at the Main School of the Fire Service in Warsaw. This was the first delegation of U.S. fire chiefs invited to Poland as part of the USA-Poland INFIRENET Program, which sends Polish fire officers and emergency managers to train with their counterparts in the United States.

McMahan was invited by the Institution of Fire Engineers, USA Branch, which is the overall sponsor of the USA-Poland INFIRENET Program. His trip was funded, in part, by the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation. The American fire chiefs shared their experience in areas such as testing for flow path surveys to fight fires more effectively, the use of drones in fire and emergency services, professional development and incident command systems.

McMahan was impressed with the Polish fire service’s emphasis on education, particularly for leaders in the service. “It’s a foundational pillar of what their fire service is about. They make sure that people who are in leadership positions are college educated. That’s something we need more of in America,” says McMahan. “It’s always interesting to me how we think we’re the best, always, until we go somewhere else and then we see things that we can really do better. You’ve got to broaden your horizons.”

While in Poland from Sept. 26–Oct. 5, the U.S. fire chiefs also took in historical and cultural sites, including several of significance to the Jews of Eastern Europe. They visited the Warsaw Rising Museum and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which were interesting to McMahan as a history buff. But he was most affected by the day they spent at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps memorial.

“I personally had a hard time with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. — I didn’t do well after going to that — so I was a little worried about going to Auschwitz. It’s something everyone should know about, even the kids today need to know about it,” McMahan says. “You pull in the parking lot and it looks nice from the outside. It looks like a school, like a 1950s college. … They’re nice buildings, but there’s nothing nice about it. Some of the things that they have there, it’s chilling when you think about it. They still have people’s luggage with their names — they wrote their names on the outside of their luggage with paint because they thought they were going to get it back.”

Even the weather reflected the somber mood of this dark era in Poland’s history. “Out of the 10 days we were there, it was the only day that it was cold and raining. It was cold and raining the whole time we were at the concentration camp … I thought it was really fitting because there was never a good day there,” McMahan says.