Guest Author: Gordon Thompson ’89
I received a phone call at work from one of my favorite RHS teachers, Mrs. Gretchen Reed. Hearing her voice brought back many memories because of the times I spent with her and her family outside of school.
How many teachers take you up in several of their airplanes…and let you jump out of them? I used to skydive with her brother-in-law and a few of her nephews. We were lucky enough to complete several jumps, out of some amazing airplanes, at her property in Leroy. For that reason alone, Mr. and Mrs. Reed will always be two of my favorites!
My excitement quickly turned to nervousness when she explained the reason for her call! She asked if I would be willing to write a story about my career and what I’ve done since leaving RHS. After asking if she had looked at my transcripts, I wondered if she had me confused with some other former student. She assured me her editing skills were still strong and we’d get through this together.
My initial plans after graduation, in 1989, were to attend Embry Riddle Aeronautical Institute and become an airline pilot. I had no other career plans until I found out the cost of four years of schooling there. I started working as a laborer at a local construction company and was attending Lakeland Community College when my father suggested working part time as a firefighter for the Painesville Township Fire Department. My uncle was a founding member of the department, and my father was a captain on the department.
My father was a former police chief in the city of Kirtland and continued his law enforcement career while working with the fire department. He was also part of the Lake County Fire Investigation Unit and that piqued my interest. In early June of 1989 I started my training and work for the FD. I never considered a career in the fire service until after I went on my first few calls.
Life suddenly changed and it felt like more of a calling than flying the friendly skies did. I attended any fire and rescue training that was available at the time. I wished that I had that personal motivation to study and learn in high school like I did in the beginning of my career. I knew that this is what I wanted to do for a living. I worked four years as part-time firefighter before getting hired as a career firefighter with Painesville Township in 1993.
My RHS education prepared me for more than I gave it credit for while I was a student. I learned the benefits of teamwork and a Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) from my time playing football. I also wished I had paid attention and worked a little harder in some of my classes. All the things I thought were useless information or things I would never use again: Well, I needed those skills in the real world. Turns out that all of those things were needed in my career in the fire service. The time one spends learning skills in fire and EMS never end. You’re a student for your entire career. I continued taking classes.
The great thing about the fire service is that there are many areas you can specialize in. After the required years on the job, I joined the Lake County Fire Investigation Unit. This again required more education. I took as many fire investigation classes as I could at the Ohio Fire Academy, and then I applied for a national class. That class accepted 30 people a year from across the globe, and I didn’t have the credentials to get in.
One day I received a call from a Special Agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives saying I had met the requirements for the class. After a lengthy discussion with the agent, we both agreed it was best to get a little more experience before attending the class. I received that call again in late 2005. This time I was ready. In early 2006 I attended a class at the ATF National Academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. That class was a career and life altering experience for me.
All of a sudden, I found myself in a class with some of the top fire investigators in the world. A woman from the Chinese National Forensic Laboratory and a gentleman from the National Forensic Lab in Australia were now my fellow students and my peers.
There was one fellow student that stood out more than any others to me. He was a K-9 handler of an accelerant detection dog from the ATF. I talked at length with him about the program and how he became a K-9 handler. He told me that if I met the requirements to be in the class we were currently in, that I would definitely meet the requirements of the K-9 program.
When I came home from the ATF Academy and told my wife, of 8 months, that I wanted to be a K-9 handler, she was skeptical to say the least. She had never had a dog in her life and wasn’t really excited about the thought of it, but she decided to humor me. I told her it was a difficult program to get into and there was a good chance I wouldn’t get selected.
There was an accelerant detection canine in Geauga County that was always made available for our use in fire investigations. I was lucky enough to work with the handler on several arson cases in the beginning of my time as a fire investigator. We had several arson convictions when we worked with the K-9 team. The handler had mentioned that he was considering retirement.
I knew the K-9 unit was a valuable tool for use in fire investigations, and I didn’t want to see the program end in our area. I asked the handler what he thought about my desire to apply to the ATF program. He warned me that it was a difficult program to get into and offered his assistance. In my naivety I thought there were these specialized dogs all over the U.S. I quickly found out how few there were. ATF had 75 dogs in the entire U.S. at the time, and that number was quickly dropping.
After talking with my wife, I presented my plan to bring a K-9 to the Painesville Township FD and to offer the service to our entire county. The fire chief seemed surprised and had more questions than I was prepared to answer. I believe he kept asking more and more questions thinking I would eventually give up. I didn’t give up and found the answer to all of his questions. He finally agreed to present it to the township trustees. I think he was more surprised than I was when they approved this plan.
There was still the application process with ATF. We weren’t guaranteed anything. It took me four months just to fill out the application. After what seemed like an eternity, I submitted our application. I honestly thought this was going to be a long process. Two weeks later I received another phone call from the ATF’s National Canine Center with a “Congratulations! You’ve been accepted into our next class!”
We had just over a month to prepare for our journey. I still remember telling my wife that I had been accepted into the program and I was leaving town for six weeks. At this point we had been married for just over a year, and as I said, she had never had a dog as a pet. She wasn’t really excited about my leaving for six weeks. I still don’t think she really wanted a dog in the house at that time!
Editor’s Note: To find out if Gordon’s wife accepted the new family member, watch for Part II in the summer On-Line Log. His attendance at the canine center was only the beginning of a rewarding career that would take him and three faithful, four-legged companions on many a journey.