A Firefighter’s Story

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host with Becoming Your Best Global Leadership. We are thrilled to have a very special guest with us today, Russell Hayden. Welcome, Russell! 


Russell Grant Hayden: How are you doing this morning? 


Steve Shallenberger: But I know it’s not Russell! I am doing pretty good, brother! This is Grant – Grant is his middle name but Grant and I go back a long way and I’m so excited to have him on the show today because Grant and I were in the same high school. That was a long time ago, wasn’t it brother? 


Russell Grant Hayden: Late 60s! 


Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, it was the late 60s, that was a good time! Well, Grant has a wonderful story and I’ll give the background to that in just a moment, but first I would like to help you get to know Grant a little bit better, and then we’ll have him share his background. Grant is a firefighter, he’s a civil servant. He served as a firefighter for 36 years, first of all, in the Los Altos California Fire Department – he was a student there learning the business – then went to one of the largest firefighter organizations in the United States, the San Jose, California Firefighters, where he was for 29 years. He then ended his career on some special projects in Gilroy. And go, Gilroy! What’s it known for? Isn’t it the garlic capital of the world, Grant? 


Russell Grant Hayden: The garlic capital of the world, yes. 


Steve Shallenberger: And when you drive through it, you can smell it, can’t you? 


Russell Grant Hayden: Yes, you can. 


Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, that’s pretty awesome! Grant’s done more than that, Grant has also – by virtue of his background, and his assignment – done some really admirable things and a great example for us in his firefighting career, and he’s the Founder and President of Firefighter’s ABC’s diversity. We’re going to talk about that a little bit before we’re done, as well. So, this is going to be a delightful show! So, before we get going, Grant, if you don’t mind, tell us about your background. What led you to where you are today? 


Russell Grant Hayden: What actually led me to where I am today, in simple terms, is I was the first black hired on my fire department. I was the only black in my fire department for the first five years and we had no women. And so, I met another black firefighter back in the day named Ken Moore from Stanford Fire Department – he was one of two blacks from his fire department – and he suggested we formed an organization called the Santa Clara County Black Firefighters Association. So that was the beginning of my tenure and my involvement in hiring more people of diverse backgrounds, trying to get more women into the fire service. And that led up to where I am today, the Firefighter’s ABC’s. 


Steve Shallenberger: Excellent. Wow, you have seen a lot of background, haven’t you? In all that time, what has changed? What’s it been like? What was it like to go through that transition? 


Russell Grant Hayden: As you well know, even in today’s society, diversity and bringing people of color, low income, and people from different genders into the fire service has been a struggle, it’s still a struggle today. And it’s my goal before I pass away from this earth to do whatever I can to create a more diverse and inclusive fire service, which is not now nationwide. We have a few departments here and there, but it’s just not where it should be. 


Steve Shallenberger: Right, okay. So, what are some of the experiences that you’ve had, Grant, in the process that have been inspirational for you where you’ve seen real progress? 


Russell Grant Hayden: The most inspirational thing that I have seen is that we have cheesed up departments now that are embracing this, we’ve gotten to the point where we have a few across the country and in Canada – female fire chiefs are breaking barriers there also, too. And with the innovation of things like that, and then me founding Firefighter’s ABC’s has given me an outlet to share with other people, all of our free support tools for other youth. They came up just like I did, with no idea that they could ever become a firefighter. So, that’s where I’m at today. 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay, well, good. Well, would you mind sharing with our listeners your story? Here’s how this came about, is some of you may know that about four or five weeks ago, I did a podcast on writing your personal history or personal story, sharing your life sketch, or being sure that you have one. Well, yesterday, I happened to get Grant’s and it was fantastic. Just four pages, but it is an inspiring story. And it’s a big message for all of us because there’s a great message in it for us. So, would you mind just telling us about your story – I’d love to get to know – and the big turning point that is part of that story? 


Russell Grant Hayden: Well, in brief, when I was going to Vallejo High School with you, Steve, I finally got kicked out of Vallejo High School and there was one other high school in our city, Hogan High School, I couldn’t go to school there, so I left home before I finished high school and I was on my own. So, I went down to San Jose to go to San Jose High School and I did not graduate. I had to go to a summer adult school. So, one day while I was a little bit homeless after that, Kentucky down the freeway, Dr. Roth from Foothill College picked me up on the freeway and asked me what I was doing. Basically, I told him nothing. He took me back to the fire department that same day, he made a U-turn on the freeway, and introduced me to the Student Firefighter Program, which completely changed my life. And I want to say, to that point there, if you’re out there listening to this podcast, or anywhere in the world, if you have a chance to help someone, no matter who that person may be, you never know how just reaching out and touching that person can change their life forever. And that gets passed along and they can change someone else’s life. And that’s how I got into the fire service, and I really appreciate that. I stayed with that gentleman until he passed away at 96 years old. And that’s the short story of how I got into the fire service. 


Steve Shallenberger: Wow. Isn’t that amazing? And it sounds like there were some hard years for you there and you weren’t sure where you’re going to go. 


Russell Grant Hayden: I didn’t know where I was going to go. I had never been in a fire station before, I had never met a firefighter before. And you were telling me earlier, Steve about the things you have been doing and people you’ve met and how you were over in Africa. Well, a sub-story to that is that, one day when I was at the fire station, I was reading the newspaper, I saw a photo of a family from Ethiopia and they were at a church in San Jose. And so, I called my wife and said, “I’m going to go get that family and take them to breakfast.” I went to pick them up and they ended up staying at our home for six months to eight months. I helped them learn how to drive a car and all that stuff. And that’s how giving back allows you to do things like that in your life. So, yeah. 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay, thanks for sharing that. Well, this is one point I want to be sure that is not lost because it was a total reaffirmation for me, and inspiration, is to think about Grant’s story, where he was, that he was going along the highway and this gentleman picked him up – which I’m sure anytime is a little bit scary – this professor, and then just said, “You know what, I’m going to take you back to Foothill College, and I’d like to introduce you to the firefighters’ program.” It’s that one thing – it probably didn’t take very long, maybe half an hour, an hour, an hour and a half of Dr. Roth’s time and look at the impact that had. So, every single one of you can touch other people in a similar way. You just never know, from your efforts, the outcome of this. And I’m sure that Dr. Roth – he may or may not be aware of, for example of the ripple effect that he’s had on the Ethiopian family. And I know, Grant, that you’ll probably never be able to know all the good that you’ve done from your efforts. So, I’m so glad that you shared that. So, how was it? It had to be discouraging sometimes, Grant, when you were trying to make a difference and had the inspiration of encouraging more diversity. Tell us how you have made it through those times and just kind of push through the obstacles. 


Russell Grant Hayden: Well, many times it was very difficult, and especially with Los Altos Fire Department, and being the only black in that department for the entire five years I was there. Many of the people in the department at the time did not embrace me and that was a struggle, to be honest with you. But I persevered and went on to leave the Los Altos Fire Department and test for the San Jose Fire Department – and out of about 4000 applicants that year, I came out number 15. And that just shows you that a person who struggled through high school, flunked out of college, living on the streets, if given a chance that they can make their way in life. And that’s why my motto has always been, “Reach out and touch someone else.” And that’s been my goal and that will be my goal to the end. 


Steve Shallenberger: As we talk about this issue, there’re many things we can’t control in life, but we can control how we treat others. Right?  


Russell Grant Hayden: That’s correct.  


Steve Shallenberger: And even though you may be a victim of the prejudice of maybe going through a change or transformation in society where people are becoming fairer, and open, where opportunities are open to anyone, but being in the middle of it. I’m just thinking, Grant – I’d love to get your thoughts on this – that the best way to work through that perseverance that you’re talking about is just to be a good person, is to treat all people good, regardless of how they treat you. What are your thoughts on that? 


Russell Grant Hayden: Well, it’s funny you said that Steve because one of the things that we have on our website for the youth – and it’s free to everyone, all the youth – is we have what’s called a F.L.A.S.H test. And that’s the learning tool test that we give to our youth starting in the ninth grade to post-college.  


Steve Shallenberger: Yes.  


Russell Grant Hayden: And someone asked me one day, “Why there are so many things in that F.L.A.S.H test that do not relate to the fire service? Like, thinks about government, questions about etiquette, questions about drug usage, and things like that.” Well, our goal is because we know most of the people who touch our website will never ever get hired into the fire service because we have to deal with a lot of numbers, but at the end of the day, we want them just to be good people, good citizens, and be able to function in any career, regardless of that career choice, and know a little bit about their government and to be involved and things like that. So, that’s the philosophy I bought into Firefighter’s ABC’s is to help people become just simply more well-rounded, and able to deal with life. 


Steve Shallenberger: I love it. Well, that is the spirit of Becoming Your Best, isn’t it? 


Russell Grant Hayden: I had to retire to get there. 


Steve Shallenberger: Good going! I had one other thought too. And I’ve got one other question for you, and that is I’d like to just ask, generally, tips that you might have for our listeners – just any tips to help them be more successful, to make a difference. What are your thoughts on that? 


Russell Grant Hayden: The biggest tip that I could give to anyone out there listening would be to, number one, be the best you can be in whatever position you are or you find yourself in; you may not get to the top of whatever, but be the best in whatever level and whatever position you’re in. And more than that, whenever you do look at it from the standpoint of, when I pass away, did I do things to just leave this world better? That’s the philosophy you should have. And whatever that may be, you did your job. 


Steve Shallenberger: Well, I’ll just tell you right now, Grant, just hearing those two tips, those two pieces of advice are worth our whole podcast today. How powerful! I’m going to share with our listeners something that I’m not sure how quite to put it, but Grant said he was expelled from high school and we were laughing yesterday as we were talking about this because I, too, was expelled from high school for a couple of weeks. So, we have that in common, way to go Grant! I told him the reason I was expelled is I shot off firecrackers in the garbage can in the big quad at Vallejo High School and it was during class. I wasn’t very smart, really, I’m sure I had a delayed frontal lobe development, Grant. But here I am, throwing these firecrackers in the garbage can, and these teachers can see me, and they knew who it was, and reported me and I got expelled for a couple of weeks. But that was a great time being raised where we were. It was a turbulent time in our history, but we all made it through it, didn’t we? We learned a lot. 


Russell Grant Hayden: We learned a lot, we did a lot. 


Steve Shallenberger: Indeed. Well, Grant, tell us about how people can find out about what you’re doing. And another compliment to Grant for his ongoing efforts to make a difference. As I said, he’s founded – he’ll tell you about it – the Firefighter’s ABC’s of Diversity. Tell us all about it. How can people find out about what you’re doing? 


Russell Grant Hayden: Yeah, well, we target youth primarily in the United States and in Canada. We target youth from the ninth grade through and post-college. And you don’t have to worry about if you’re an A student or a B student, you can be almost falling out of school to join our program. Our program is 100% free, which will give you support tools for getting into the fire service, or the EMS field, or just simply to become better students or better citizens. And you can find all of our free support tools and join us at to find a host of tools there. We have other fire departments throughout the nation, that are members of our organization, and simply it’s the fight is there to create a more diverse candidate pool for the fire service and EMS field. 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay, well, there you have it, my friends, this has been really a terrific podcast for me. I hope that you’ve enjoyed it, that you’ve picked out a few things that are helpful to you. We want to thank Grant for you being part of this show today.  


Russell Grant Hayden: Thank you very much, Steve. 


Steve Shallenberger: And we wish you the best as you’re making a difference in the world! And to all of our listeners, never forget, you too are impacting a lot of lives for good. We compliment you on the things that you’re doing, admire you, and congratulate you. This is Steve Shallenberger with Becoming Your Best Global Leadership, wishing you a great day! 



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