After a long and amazing career, Ron Zawlocki, a fixture in the Fire Service and Technical Rescue Community, credited with training generations of Firefighters and Technical Rescue personnel, is retiring from MI-TF1
50 YEARS OF “Z”
Ron Zawlocki – “Z” – has decided to turn the page and open a new life chapter as he retires from Michigan Task Force 1 effective February 12, 2024. You might wonder why he selected this specific date. Well, that’s because it is 50 years to the day from when he started his career in the Fire Service.
On February 11, 1974, Z joined the Detroit Fire Department and was assigned to E10. Unfortunately, due to looming layoffs, Z decided to leave Detroit and join the Pontiac Fire Department in 1977. While Z is perhaps best known for his passion in the technical rescue world, along the way he was also a very well-respected Firefighter.
Before retiring from the Pontiac Fire Department, Z rose through the ranks and retired as a Battalion Chief, after a brief stop as Deputy Chief. During his fire service career, Z promoted constant improvement through training, self-improvement, and dedication. A Pontiac Line of Duty Death (September 7, 1988) drove Z to help develop and deliver Firefighter Safety and Survival techniques throughout the State of Michigan. Coupled with this mission was his desire to further develop technical rescue training and capabilities, not just in the Pontiac Fire Department, but the across the State of Michigan.
By 2007, when federal grant funds became available that could help create MI-TF1 and further develop technical rescue capabilities in SE Michigan, the fire service needed a plan. The good news was, Z knew exactly what was needed to make this happen and he played an integral role in MI-TF1’s initial development. Once the concept and funding were approved, it was time to build the team. Z’s role was instrumental in bringing the needed pieces together, evaluating and constantly improving our fledgling team. Ron’s knowledge and dedication helped shape MI-TF1’s future successes and set the stage for what is now one of the most robust state teams in the Midwest.
Z has certainly earned the right to hang up his helmet. He will likely still be around doing some training, and but a phone call away for some of his knowledge and insight. It is amazing how well respected one or our very own is in the technical rescue world; here is just one example:
“Lessons From Zawlocki”
Fifty Years of Service
From Dave Van Holstyn
If your date of birth starts with the number “20—”, and you’re a firefighter and/or involved in technical rescue in Michigan (or anywhere for that matter), then you should read this.
Perhaps you’ve had Ron Zawlocki as an instructor, likely in a Trench Rescue class. Maybe you’ve seen him around, heard that he likes to play cornhole, and you’re pretty sure someone once said he helped get the Task Force started… but that’s about all you know about him. Well, you owe it to yourself and to the fire service to learn just a bit more.
I’ll be brief and focus on Z’s involvement in the rescue world, at least as I know it, but there’s certainly more, a lot more. I’ll save those stories for others to tell.
In about 1992-93, Confined Space Rescue was being introduced in Michigan. Fire departments were trying to learn about this new thing called “technical rescue”. Turns out, we didn’t have to look too far for help. A group of firefighters from Pontiac, which included Ron Zawlocki, had already begun training in technical rescue. They were spurred to action after the September 1988, line of duty death of Pontiac Firefighter Tracy Williamson, who died in a building collapse. This tragedy was the beginning of the groups’ efforts to obtain the specialized training required for these complex rescue incidents.
It didn’t take long, just a few years, before this group had partnered with like-minded firefighters from Lansing, Ann Arbor, and other departments in Oakland County. They cross-trained each other in Rope, Trench, Confined Space Rescue, and Building Collapse and Z was involved in every aspect. As interest in and demand for the training grew, the MUSAR organization was formed. It was a grassroots effort driven by firefighters who, like those in Pontiac, recognized the need.
There are dozens of people that had a hand in creating what we have today, and while this article is about Z, I’m sure he’d insist on acknowledging the early contributions of people like Dean Masser, Ken Sailor, Alan Zsido, Tim Campbell, Steve Ronk, Mike Masten, Kevin Cook, and a host of others too numerous to mention. Every one of those people contributed to the cause of Technical Rescue, and I personally benefitted from all of them. But I’d like to share some of what I learned from Z.
Probably the first thing I learned from Ron was brotherhood. From the very first day we met, there was a connection between Ron, the teacher and Dave, the student. I was as green as any new guy could be but nevertheless was immediately accepted into the group. However, if I’m being totally honest, I think the beer may have helped.
During that time, Ron gave me opportunities and allowed me to grow (sometime too fast I thought). He was a good teacher and coach. He didn’t hesitate to correct you where it was needed, but always did it in a way that kept you positive and wanting to improve. His encouragement and trust afforded not just me, but many, many others, far more opportunities than we could have ever imagined. Thanks pal!
Ron also showed me that you can’t sit back and rest on what you’ve already done. If he wasn’t tweaking an existing program to make it better, then he was working a new one. For example, while I thought we were doing great teaching technical rescue classes, Z explained that we needed to start working on Firefighter Survival and Rapid Intervention Training. I can only imagine how many firefighters in Michigan (and other states) were impacted by those programs. And by the way, in his “spare time” why not write a couple of articles and do some teaching for Fire Engineering Magazine? Maybe help co-author a book? Even win a couple of speed skiing competitions?
To build on that last point just a bit more, consider the almost unimaginable efforts that Ron has put into the development of the Trench Rescue programs. It is through his leadership and drive that the MUSAR trench rescue programs are the best in the country, bar none. Most of that work was done after he “retired”, not for the money, but for the betterment of the fire service.
While Ron absolutely was a hands-on, get dirty kind of instructor, he, with some help from Don Fisher, also taught me the importance of being a knowledgeable instructor. Not just in the subject matter but in how to present the material, how to teach to adults, how to create a lesson plan.
Just one more lesson… kind of a funny story actually. After all the opportunities I was given, at some point a guy can find himself thinking he’s pretty smart. I remember that as a “smart guy” I just had to point out Mr. Zawlocki’s apparent lack of knowledge on the subject at hand. Turns out it wasn’t Z getting the lesson, it was me. He rather matter-of-factly explained that while he appreciated my enthusiasm, I was in fact full of shit… which I was. There were two lessons that day. The first was a reminder to “know your stuff”, and the other was to be humble. You can make your point without being a jerk.
As you might imagine, this could go on and on. You can talk to anyone that has worked with Z and you’ll hear statements like, “a true leader”, “best in the business”, “swears too much” and, “one of a kind”, and they’re all true. I’ll add one more statement in closing, and it’s also true. Each of us owes a debt of gratitude to Ron Zawlocki as a role model, for his encouragement and for his 50 years of selfless giving to the technical rescue community and the fire service at large.
Z, on behalf of MI-MABAS and MITF1, thank you very much for all you have done! You have left your mark in many ways, and we are all much better because of you!
Beyond his extensive work life, Ron Zawlocki continues to lead an active and loving life.