Fans of Star Trek live the Prime Directive. Others follow the Golden Rule. Put them together and you have the philosophy of a man who has devoted his life to helping others and training others to do the same.
After decades of service to the community and especially young firefighters through the Washington Volunteer Fire Company, Mark Skornia, 61, is expanding the notion of service before self with his new role as Washington Emergency Management director.
Growing up in a household that stressed doing the right thing, Skornia, says he was really blessed to have great role models who instilled a spirit of helping others.
“This is just the way I was brought up,” he said. “Serving others should be every citizen’s job. I’ve had a pretty happy life and I don’t think I would change a thing.”
The Union native and longtime Washington resident says he was kept on the straight and narrow by many positive influences in his early life.
“I got it from all sides,” Skornia said. “I wasn’t a choirboy but I was always surrounded by good people, good friends and good family. They made sure I was doing the right thing.”
Skornia’s path to service started when he began working at Strubberg Hardware in Union in 1968 when he was just 12 years old. It planted the seeds for the rest of his life.
“It was all about customer service,” Skornia said. “Helping people solve their problems.”
Skornia likens his early experiences to old Western movies.
“The bad guys could be found at the saloon over a keg of beer scheming their next heist or holdup,” he explained. “Where did you always find the good guys? The good guys hung out at the hardware store. They were solving problems over a keg of nails.”
While working at the hardware store, where he would remain for nearly 50 years, Skornia met a man who would change his life.
That man was Vernell Kasmann, an assistant fire chief for the Union Fire Department, who recruited him to join 43 years ago at age 18.
“Back then we learned on the job,” Skornia said. “In 1975, at my first fire, I jumped in and went to work.”
The expertise and finesse of the fire service in the mid-1970s and prior was nowhere near what it is today.
Equipment, techniques and especially training have evolved from simply breaking out every window and then randomly spraying water into a house to precise interior fire attacks that put firefighters more directly into harm’s way than ever before.
Skornia stayed with Union for five years and in 1980 moved to Washington and began a family with his wife Jane.
Although he knew many of the Washington firefighters and had responded and trained with them, the rules stated there was a six-month probationary period to establish residency before he could join.
“I would go to their fires and just watch,” Skornia said. “It was tough, but I had to just hang loose until I could join.”
After joining the Washington department in 1980, Skornia rose through the ranks from firefighter to lieutenant to captain and then in 1997 was elected by his peers to assistant chief, a post he would hold for the next two decades.
A common phrase in the fire service is “The best thing an old firefighter can teach a young firefighter is how to be an old firefighter.”
Simply put, by veterans passing on experiences and training, the young firefighters can lead safe careers and then in turn pass on their knowledge to the next generation.
“Training was my thing,” Skornia said. “I always had a passion for it. Over the years hundreds if not thousands of local firefighters get training.”
After starting with an associate degree in law enforcement from East Central College, Skornia has earned certifications through the University of Missouri in fire safety, firefighter I and II training and certification, officer level II, instructor level II and officer level II certifications.
Over the next 20 years as WFD training officer, Skornia increased his own knowledge and dispatched that wisdom to firefighters in his own department and eventually to hundreds of others in the county and beyond through curriculum set up through East Central College.
“We recognized the need for more local training and through ECC we were able to get guys trained to the instructor level,” Skornia said. “For years we had to go to St. Louis or Metro West to use their facilities.”
The WFD built its training facility to give firefighters the opportunity to get hands-on training close to home, but the location wasn’t exactly optimal being in a flood plain.
“We basically built that place with our bare hands,” Skornia said. “Sometimes we spent more time cleaning mud off of the equipment than we did fire training because it flooded so frequently.”
About eight years ago, the WFD built a new state-of-the-art training center, including classrooms tower and burn rooms.
“We can’t stress how important it is to do live burns,” Skornia said. “Having our own facilities allows us to do them more frequently and not spend half the day driving to a location. Now we can do them in a evening or half a day.”
The new facility also allowed the firefighters to train in speciality areas like technical, trench and high angle rescues in addition to hazardous materials responses.
“The highest point of my career was when we adopted the certifications,” Skornia said. “Then we were able to offer the classes locally. It was great to get so many guys to that level.”
Last year, after two decades as assistant chief and training officer, Skornia made a lateral step into the position of Washington Emergency Management director.
“This was a natural progression,” Skornia said. “Being a firefighter is all about preparedness. All of the emergency situations I’ve been in helped lay the groundwork for this too.”
Although his role with the fire department is now lighter, Skornia said he knew the time was right to step away.
“I could just tell,” he said. “It was time to step down and give a chance for younger firefighters to work with young folks in the community.”
On the other hand, leaving the hardware store after so many years has been a tougher transition.
“It was bittersweet,” Skornia said. “When so many people go to jobs every day they hate, I’ve been blessed with two jobs I love.”
Skornia took over the emergency management director position in mid-August during a somewhat quiet time, following the retirement of his longtime friend Washington Fire Chief Bill Halmich, who held the position for many years.
“I came in after the flood and the Fair,” Skornia said. “As long as I’m happy and like what I’m doing, I’ll keep doing it.”
In this position Skornia still responds to emergency calls big and small, but it’s the little things he can do that he knows sometimes matter the most.
“It’s amazing how many calls come in during a day’s time,” Skornia said. “I can respond and handle the little calls, so it cuts down on the volunteers needing to leave work. Anything I can do here to help them is great.”
After parts of five decades in the fire service and the beginning of a new chapter in his career last year, Skornia says there isn’t much he would do differently.
“I actually wanted to be a cop,” he said with a smile. “If I had not been a firefighter I wouldn’t have had the experiences or accomplishments I’ve had here.”
In addition to the new duties of emergency manager for the city, Skornia keeps the fire in his life and remains active with the Washington Fire Department.
“It’s kind of nice just going to a fire as a firefighter,” Skornia said. “I get to drive the trucks again.”
Despite moving out of a command position, his response to calls and participation in fire department activities and training have not slipped. In January he was again given the department’s “100 Award” for firefighters who responded to more than 100 fire calls in 2017, participated in more than 100 hours of non-fire activities, and completed more than 100 hours of training in 2017.
Skornia has received this award every year since it was created in 2011.
As part of his honors for his 20 years as the assistant chief and training officer, Skornia received a bell, which is highly symbolic in the fire service.
“It goes back to the horse and buggy days when they rang bells to clear the streets,” Skornia said. “It also represents the call or alarm and they are rung in tribute to fallen firefighters.”
Skornia explained in Washington the first bell to be used to call firefighters to service was once located at the power plant, but now resides at headquarters.
“The power plant was the only place in town that had someone there 24 hours a day,” he said. “If there was an emergency, people would run, ride a horse or later call the power plant to ring the bell.”
When not preparing for the uncertain future, Skornia is an avid ham radio operator and refers to himself as a “techno geek.”
He is a member of the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish Council and Knights of Columbus and also serves as a lector during Masses.
Mark and his wife Jane have two daughters, Kimberly and Kelly, and are kept on their toes by grandsons Cohen and Brenner, and granddaughter Kristen.