FDNY Officers Promotion Ceremony includes Six CHDS Alumni

All attendees donned protective masks. (photo courtesy of FDNY)

The Fire Department of New York City (FDNY) Officers Promotion Ceremony on May 21 was notably different than past ceremonies. With the threat of COVID-19 still looming, FDNY has adapted their promotion ceremony to mitigate exposure. The closed ceremony was hosted at the FDNY Fire Academy on Randall’s Island without friends or family in attendance and extra distance between fully-masked members of the FDNY. John Sudnik, FDNY Chief of Department, described how the ceremony felt very different this time, “Due to the pandemic, the promotion ceremony itself was certainly much different than our traditional celebration. The event itself was held outdoors at our training academy with all participants wearing face coverings, and designated seating kept a minimum of 6’ apart. There was none of the usual fanfare—no pipes and drums, no official photo taking, and perhaps most notable, no family, friends, or colleagues. Very simply, it was limited to some brief remarks made by the Fire Commissioner, followed by the official swearing-in. So, what we normally would consider to be a joyous occasion became very subdued. At the same time, it was significant in the sense that the FDNY continues to move forward, even in the midst of this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic situation, and that is a testament to our strength and resilience.”

Even though some of the traditions have been temporarily modified, one constant that remains the same is the inclusion of CHDS alumni in the promotion ceremony. The Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) has a close relationship with FDNY and over 70 members have completed CHDS education programs. “It is an honor and privilege to be a member of the FDNY Executive Staff and to share the stage with my fellow CHDS alumni,” said CHDS master’s graduate (MA0701/0702) Richard Blatus, who was promoted to FDNY Assistant Chief, Bureau of Operations. “Just as our collaboration in school furthered our success, the collaborative and analytical skills learned at CHDS helped form the strategies executed by the Department during the COVID crisis.”

Commissioner Nigro addresses the group. (photo courtesy of FDNY)

FDNY Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro presided over the promotion ceremony which included 47 Fire and EMS Chiefs—six of whom are CHDS alumni: Richard Blatus, John Esposito, Thomas Currao, Frank Leeb, Tim McNamara, and Johnathan Pistilli. “CHDS and FDNY should both be very proud of the accomplishments of our recently promoted members,” added Chief Sudnik. Sudnik is the highest-ranking uniformed member of the FDNY and he is also a graduate of the CHDS master’s program (MA0403/0404). “No doubt, they have all demonstrated leadership and initiative; two qualities that our institutions identify as keys to success. It should come as no surprise that FDNY leaders—both current and future—find themselves participating in the CHDS programs. We fully expect that our newly promoted members will draw upon their CHDS experiences and apply those critical thinking skills to help get the FDNY through these challenging times.”

CHDS master’s graduate (MA0705/0706) John Esposito, promoted to FDNY Chief of Special Operations, noted how this ceremony felt different, “For me, the promotion is recognition of my work and ability to adapt to and succeed in the changing world we live in. The changed world was evident in the abnormal promotion ceremony. Instead of the normal with family and friends and loud cheering, there were no spectators and lots of quiet with socially distanced seating. Everyone wore masks and there were no handshakes or festivities; it was quick and clean.”

Frank Leeb was promoted to Chief of the Fire Academy in an adapted, online ceremony.

Indeed, the ceremony felt different for most attendees, but CHDS master’s grad (MA1405/1406) Frank Leeb may have had the most unique experience. Leeb was actually promoted to FDNY Chief of the Fire Academy on a WebEx call (online video platform) separate from the rest of the promotions. “My son graduated from Johns Hopkins University at 11 a.m. on Thursday. The same day and time my promotion was scheduled to take place. Although his graduation was also conducted online, I was not going to miss it, so the department had the idea to promote me in a similar way (online) at 10:30 a.m. I placed my left hand on the bible which my son was holding while I raised my right hand and was promoted by the Fire Commissioner. It was a very special and unique day indeed during these different times.”

The novel coronavirus has potential to continue threatening public health and safety as we reopen communities, so that will be a major focus of training at the Fire Academy for Leeb, “We are approaching this challenge with the mindset of improving upon the impeccable FDNY legacy of world-class training while using this seminal moment to rethink, retool, and modernize FDNY training. This requires a forward-thinking mindset and approach to all of our programs and their delivery. While we look to better prepare our department to train in a post-COVID-19 pandemic environment, this will also better position the department to handle and train if another existential threat was to emerge in the future.”

CHDS master’s graduate (MA0803/0804) Thomas Currao, promoted to FDNY Chief of Counterterrorism and Emergency Preparedness, noted how adaptability is a key factor in a post-coronavirus world. “This mission has been put to extreme test in recent days, due to the global threat of COVID-19, but as with many other historical challenges and tragedies, the FDNY as well as the greater Fire Responder and Health Care community, rose to meet this pandemic threat and provide the very best emergency medical care possible within a dynamic and high-threat environment. It is my goal now to continue to capture all of the lessons learned and best practices so that the department can be even more prepared for the future. That is the very best way, as I see it, to honor all those who were lost to this global health crisis.”

Jonathan Pistilli was promoted to Assistant Chief of EMS.

The lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic will also inform and improve EMS operations, according to CHDS master’s graduate (MA1201/1202) Jonathan Pistilli, who was promoted to FDNY Assistant Chief of EMS, “I’ve been working hard towards this goal and I’m honored to be a part of this incredible team. I’m ready to move EMS forward and my new position will give me the ability to influence changes in a positive direction. During this time, we are filled with mixed emotions. I hate to celebrate during a pandemic, but I’m also grateful to represent EMS because we’ve all stepped up to the plate in a big way during this time.”

When asked how his experience at CHDS has impacted his career, Esposito shared, “One of the biggest takeaways from my CHDS education is the need to establish and grow relationships throughout the FDNY and with our city, state, and federal partners. These strong relationships are necessary for efficient and coordinated interagency responses. I am grateful for the close friends and strong network that resulted from my CHDS experience. The biggest source of strength is my family, especially my wife Nancy. Without her love and support, my CHDS experience and subsequent promotions would not have been possible.”

Leeb also credited CHDS as a vital influence on the way he thinks and performs his duties as a member of FDNY, “The CHDS education which strategically combines courses, discussions, student cohorts from multiple disciplines, and forward-thinking instructors and mentors has uniquely prepared the FDNY for the challenges that lie ahead with many CHDS alumni now serving in leadership roles within the department. This pandemic provides an opportunity, the CHDS education provides the tools—we must not squander this opportunity to leverage change.”