Arts & Sciences

Brandman grad’s firefighting duty includes fighting misinformation

October 16, 2017

Flames aren’t the only things that need to be put out during wildfires.

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Thanh Nguyen graduated with a B.A. in Applied Studies in 2016 and is a captain in the Garden Grove Fire Department. The department's chief, Tom Schultz, is also a Brandman graduate.

Rumors and misinformation also need tamping down. That’s where Garden Grove Fire captain and Brandman grad Thanh Nguyen’s role as an incident public information officer (PIO) for the Canyon 2 Fire in Orange County makes a difference.

“My job is to provide accurate information in a timely manner. I’m always aware of the timeframe,” said Nguyen, temporarily stationed at the incident base camp in Irvine’s Great Park for the most recent wildfire. As a PIO, Nguyen’s job is to share updates and information with the public, fellow first responders and the media.

The Canyon 2 Fire involved multiple jurisdictions – two county fire departments, Orange and Anaheim fire departments and CalFire, the state agency – and support from many other Orange County-based fired departments, including Garden Grove.

“Everybody wants to see it done a certain way, and I try to present a unified voice. I spend a lot of time running down rumors. Social media moves fast,” said Nguyen, who earned his B.A. in Applied Studies with an emphasis in organizational leadership in 2016.

Accurate information can be the difference between people getting out of their homes in time or being overwhelmed by flames, which is why, at the peak of the fire, there were six people handling the PIO duties. Nguyen, sitting in the PIO trailer as the danger was starting to wind down on Thursday afternoon, rattled off the numbers for the Canyon 2 Fire: At the peak, 1,608 people staffing the fire, most of them firefighters. 9,217 acres burned. 59 structures (meaning anything from a shed or other outbuilding to a house) damaged or destroyed.

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Rebecca Warner captured this image of Thanh Nguyen providing a fire update on NBC/4. Warner was his academic advisor.

“I love being a PIO. Getting in front of the camera is just one small aspect of the job. You really have to delve into what’s going on. If you saw us work, one tweet takes a lot of effort. We try to keep people from jumping to conclusions. Let’s get that message clear and concise,” said Nguyen.

Catching a glimpse of Nguyen as he gave updates before the television cameras was Rebecca Warner, his Brandman academic advisor. Nguyen credits her with providing him the direction and support he needed to complete his bachelor’s degree. Ask Warner about Nguyen and she responds with a broad smile, partly because she enjoyed his sense of humor.

“He always gave it his best academically despite his busy and unpredictable schedule at work. I remember him telling me that he would always reach out to his instructors before the class to introduce himself. He was just an ideal student to work with,” said Warner.

Nguyen had already been promoted to captain in the Garden Grove Fire Department when he heeded the department’s strong suggestion that he finish his bachelor’s degree.

Firefighting was not his original career goal. Nguyen started community college studying advertising. “I struggled, mostly because of a lack of motivation.”

He was working at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach when frequent contact with paramedics gave him a new career goal. “I started asking questions and here I am,” he said. That was 22 years ago.

It took a little over four years to finish his bachelor’s degree while working full time in the Garden Grove Fire Department, teaching emergency medical technician (EMT) courses and raising a family. “I didn’t want to overextend so I took about three courses a year.”

Like many students who return to college after a gap, he was worried about how he would do. It helped that his four members of his fire crew at the time were also enrolled, three in the first class he took. He also discovered that Brandman courses provided what he needed to succeed.

“At Brandman, you really learned. I find I keep more of it because of discussions and writing papers, much more so than taking a multiple-choice test.”

Of particular use: the organizational leadership classes, which provided insights into both departmental and interdepartmental politics and corresponded with a new role emphasizing prevention and public relations as a deputy fire marshal. “It helped me understand the department. Everything I learned, I was applying.”

Everyone has their own motivation for going back to school, including self-satisfaction, kids, monetary reasons, he said. “If people are even remotely thinking of going back to school, they should. The value is indescribable.”

“I wasn’t going to walk (go through the graduation ceremony) and then I thought about my kids. I really wanted them to see the end result.”

And when an irritated member of the public queries him with “are you even educated?”, he knows he can answer, as he did, “Yes, I am.”

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Words of advice from Capt. Thanh Nguyen
“Be prepared. In California, the bigger danger for most people is always earthquakes. But if you live near a wildlife area, you should be prepared for what could happen. And when you’re advised to go, be ready to go.”
Go to Ready OC for more information.

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