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What you missed at the 2018 Pinnacle Leadership Forum

Pinnacle program co-chair, Jay Fitch, recounts the highlights from this year’s leadership forum


John O’Leary is a survivor of a gasoline explosion that burned 100 percent of his body and nearly killed him as a child.

Photo courtesy of Greg Friese

EMS gurus at the Pinnacle Leadership Forum held this summer in Phoenix, Az., offered key insights that were well received, despite the 118-degree temperatures. Engaging speakers, expanded professional networks and great food were all hallmarks of this year’s conference. To give you a taste of the flavor from the conference, here’s a brief summary of the keynote address.

John O’Leary outlined his compelling story of being burned as a 9-year-old child, and both his physical and emotional recovery. O’Leary’s talk centered around three core questions:

  • Why me?
  • Who cares?
  • What more can I do?

Each of the questions had a twist.

Most of us would think “Why me?” would be a plaintiff’s cry about why this terrible thing happened to me but O’Leary turned that into a battle cry to “live inspired.”

“Don’t be pushed by your problems. Be led by your dreams,” was a quote he used to underscore the point. Through emotional storytelling and great humor, O’Leary revealed a brighter vision for what is possible in life and leading emergency services agencies.

He outlined “Who cares?” by telling everyone about the caregivers that impacted his amazing recovery. No one expected him to survive the first night, but he did. He then survived months in a hospital bed, dozens of surgeries and years of therapy. Before his 10th birthday, O’Leary lost all of his fingers to amputation. He described how Jack Buck, the legendary announcer for the St. Louis Cardinals, repeatedly visited his hospital room and bribed him with team baseballs to spur his recovery. He explained how Buck became a lifelong mentor, including his final gift of the rare communitive baseball trophy from Buck’s induction into the Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

O’Leary didn’t stop there. He challenged each of those attending Pinnacle with a final question, “What more can I do?” to encourage us to think about how we can expand our spheres of influence to “do good” within our families and home communities.

He clearly demonstrated that he understands the demands our profession makes on individuals dedicated to serving patients. He drew us in and, while talking about his experiences, he quietly infused energy and passion for the profession for those of us that lead EMS agencies.

At the end of his speech, O’Leary played a rendition of “Amazing Grace” on the piano, using his partially-amputated hands, to the astonishment of the crowd. It was amazing, and the audience stood and cheered his accomplishment.

O’Leary’s story and reverberated throughout the conference hallways all week as we delved into leadership financial issues facing our profession. Even now, I am thinking about the probing questions he asked of our industry leaders.

See you at the next Pinnacle Leadership Conference in Orlando.

For more than three decades, the Fitch & Associates team of consultants has provided customized solutions to the complex challenges faced by public safety organizations of all types and sizes. From system design and competitive procurements to technology upgrades and comprehensive consulting services, Fitch & Associates helps communities ensure their emergency services are both effective and sustainable. For ideas to help your agency improve performance in the face of rising costs, call 888-431-2600 or visit