Eugene Janda’s office in the Division of Public Safety building on Chestnut Street is full of memorabilia from a career dedicated to fire safety.
Behind Janda’s desk sits a row of helmets, which includes one with the number “12” on the front—a remainder from his days as acting battalion chief in the Philadelphia Fire Department. Framed photos of friends and colleagues, past and present, line the walls. In one corner, he has neatly organized “blue books,” which contain detailed floor plans and vital information on campus buildings. And on one wall hangs a warped, burned piece of the Palestra floor—a sobering souvenir from a small fire that started when rags used in the installation of a new floor self-ignited.
It’s fitting surroundings for someone who spent more than 22 years with the city’s Fire Department, working as a firefighter, lieutenant, acting battalion chief, and finally, as a captain. In his last job with the department, Janda was an instructor at the Philadelphia Fire Academy where he taught 660 firefighters—approximately 25 percent of the force—and indoctrinated 250 paramedics.
“Every time I pass a fire truck, somebody still always says something to me. You hear ‘Yo, Cap!,’ because I was the operations captain up there,” Janda says. “Sometimes you can’t always remember all their names but you do remember their faces.”
In 2000, Janda came to Penn as a safety specialist, and in December of 2003, assumed the role of deputy chief for Fire and Emergency Services. He moved into his current role as chief in 2008, where he reviews construction and renovation projects, fire protection reliability, and emergency preparedness around campus.
“I think part of our planning mission here on campus is to make sure that we have things in place so if we have something, it stays small,” Janda says. “I always think worst-case. It’s a habit because of my job.”
The Current recently sat down with Janda to discuss his career with the Fire Department, his role as adviser to MERT, the student-run Medical Emergency Response Team, and how people can be better-prepared in any kind of emergency.
Q: Why did you want to be a firefighter?
A: I graduated from Temple University in 1977 and the job market was not that great, so I applied for public service jobs. I had a bachelor’s of business administration so I got hired by the Sheriff’s Department. I spent time in City Hall as a sheriff. After that, I got called by the Fire Department and I am a physical type of person. Right after that, I got called by the Police Department and I thought about it, but I decided my best options were with the Fire Department. I had already started there and really liked what I was doing.
Q: Where in the city did you work?
A: I worked in almost every area of the city but I started in West Philadelphia, at 61st and Thompson, Ladder 24. I really liked working out in West Philadelphia but I got promoted to lieutenant and was sent up to North Philadelphia. I did some time in Roxborough, Manayunk. I went up and did a year as an acting battalion chief 12, where you deal with five different stations, and you’d have anywhere from 10 medic units under you [and] ladder trucks, engine trucks. Just as I got done, I was called up as an instructor up at the Philadelphia Fire Academy and I liked it. I went up for a year [and] six years later I was still there.
Q: What were you teaching the new firefighters in the classroom?
A: Mostly, they were new cadets that come in [to] learn everything—emergency medical technician training, how to operate pumps, how to operate in certain types of fires, extinguish different types of fires, the whole culture of the organization. We used to have a roll call every morning and nobody is allowed to be late—it’s very structured and we always get up there and say, ‘What’s the best job in the world?’ and they answer, ‘Firefighting!’ It’s sort of a mini-boot camp. [We had to] make sure the person could actually handle firefighting duty, because sometimes you have to walk with a lot of equipment. The worst time I ever had is at 46th and Brown, [the building is not] there anymore—we had to go up 18 flights. By the time I got up there, and put the mask on to fight the fire, it’s tough.
During that time between classes, we did back-to-basics training and would bring up fire companies who are in the field. There were various emergency medical recertification courses with hazardous materials, radiological courses, and emergency medical services.
Q: In your years with the Fire Department, did the scope of fires change as people became more aware of fire safety?
A: Smoke detectors made a big change over the years. It actually kept a lot of fires small, before they could get so large, and it saved a lot of people’s lives. When I first came on, there were over 100 deaths a year. Unfortunately you still have [about] 25 people who die a year in fires, and that shouldn’t happen. I know one of the initiatives for the last commissioner is zero fire deaths, and in a city of a million-and-a-half people, it’s sometimes tough to do.
Q: Did you miss being in the field?
A: I still went in the field but it would be on weekends on overtime when they needed people. I did that from time to time. When you’re in the field, you’re in there, hitting the fire, knocking the fire down, that’s really what you’re about.
Q: Why did you decide to make the transition to Penn?
A: A friend of mine who worked in the hazardous material unit actually faxed my resume down here. I got a call for an interview and … next thing I know, I got a call back a week later saying we’re going to hire you.
I have five children and all my children benefited from the tuition remission program. After I got here, this place was more than just tuition to me. That’s why I went and got my master’s degree [in Earth & Environmental Science].
Q: You worked for the city—so what’s it like seeing the Penn-city relationship from the other side?
A: I see where we complement one another and we have the same mission—only our mission is more geared toward the campus. Some of our students who come here live in an off-campus environment, which I think is, right now, the biggest risk we have.
Q: What makes that so risky?
A: Penn puts a lot into fire protection. They always have since I’ve been here. But when you go off campus, you’re dealing with individual landlords. We really don’t have jurisdiction over them. It’s still the Penn community and I think our mission is to be advocates for the Penn community, to make sure they are safe and give them information if they’re off campus.
Q: What are the challenges unique to a college environment?
A: You have to come to consensus to get things done and sometimes that can be a little challenging, but in the end, if you listen to what other people are saying first and give them a well-researched and thought-about answer, you may not always get exactly what you want, but you actually get the best you can for the Penn community and the buildings.
Q: I understand you also serve as an adviser to MERT, the student-run Medical Emergency Response Team. How did you get involved with that group?
A: I was asked to evaluate the MERT [proposal] back in 2003; I wanted to see it go forward and there was a lot of debate about whether we needed it. It seemed to me that was not only a good thing for medical services on our campus because they’ll get here before the Philadelphia Fire Department, but it’s a great leadership tool.
They’re more than emergency service. They’ve helped out with things like alcohol and drug issues, Quaker Days. I think students look to them because they’re students who are going to help them.
Q: What’s your advice for people who ask how they can be more prepared?
A: Any place you go into a building, just know two exits. Some people walk in, even the building they work in all the time, and wouldn’t know a second way out if they need it. There’s no substitute if you don’t have an exit.
Q: What are your goals for fire and emergency services at Penn?
A: We’re trying to empower people across the campus to take fire safety and emergency preparedness into their own buildings and into their own lives. I always try to tell people, make sure you do the same thing when you’re at home. PennReady is the umbrella program to manage all emergency preparedness programs at Penn. We incorporate five phases in PennReady—prevention, protection, preparedness, response, and recovery. The elements of these five phases help to prevent emergencies or keep emergency events small and allows the University to quickly return to its mission of education and research. The PennReady program is closely linked with the Mission Continuity Program, which is sponsored by the Provost and Executive Vice President’s office [and] incorporates planning to resume normal operations as efficiently as possible in the event of a crisis.
Q: What do you tell students in terms of how to keep themselves safe?
A: Every time I look at a group of students, I see people who are going around the world and are going to be running businesses and hospitals, and I always try to impress upon them, any time you’re in charge of people or have people you love and care about, [make sure] people have a safe environment and know what to do if something happens. I’ve been caught in smoke in my previous job and it’s not easy to handle. I ran out of air and it was one of those things when that happens, you really get the true effects of smoke and you can’t see very far in front of your face. You try to stay low to the floor because that’s where you’re going to get the most air and there are certain things that you know: The way you came in, you’re going to try to go out.
Q: How do you not let fear take over in a situation like that?
A: There’s a sense of fear, but your adrenaline and training pushes you to make sure you keep doing the same things the right way. I think any firefighter knows they go into dangerous situations and they’re not routine and when things go wrong, they could get very wrong.
Q: I bet your family is relieved knowing you’re on this side of the desk.
A: You realize it’s a physical job and there are certain things that go with that. ... You’re out in zero-degree weather and water is pouring on you, and smoke—it’s a young person’s game. I’m totally satisfied in what I’m doing here. When I walk down to the parking lot every day, I just feel good and I think I’m making a difference in a small way. [In] a university like this, with the research and all the good things that go on and all the places that people touch in the world, it might be only this little bit that you contribute to that, but it’s good to know.