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When asked about why they got into the business, most firefighters will say it was because they wanted to help people in need. For many of us, whether this was our true reason for choosing this career, the focus quickly shifts to how much fun and how stimulating the work becomes. For some of us, as the years on the job stack up and we become the “old salts” on our departments, we learn to understand and appreciate the importance of the people around us in our careers and lives. This was the case for us as we completed our studies in a career-development program for chief fire officers.
The authors recently graduated from the National Fire Academy’s (NFA) Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program in Emmitsburg, MD. The program requires a four-year time commitment during which participants attend a two-week course each year at the NFA campus. The coursework covers various aspects of the fire executive’s personal and professional development, including personal/professional development, community risk-reduction practices, emergency operations and the practice of leadership. An additional requirement of each 80-hour course is the completion of an applied research project (ARP) based on both the topic of the course and an issue relevant to the student’s department. While the coursework and associated ARPs are demanding, the program is well worth the time and effort. It is important to note that last year marked the 25th anniversary of the program and since 1985, just under 3,000 fire service professionals have graduated from the program.
The last course, executive leadership, was especially noteworthy because the program director, Chuck Burkell, guided the participants on a tour through the nearby Gettysburg National Military Park. The all-day tour of the Civil War battlefield highlighted many of the 1,300-plus monuments along with the natural terrain that affected the three-day battle strategy and tactics. Burkell also skillfully chronicled numerous critical leadership actions that proved to be decisive both in this battle and eventually in the Civil War. The intent was to show parallels between the leadership in the July 1863 battle and the challenges facing the modern fire service.
While on the battlefield tour and listening to the stories about those three fateful days, we started to see that the problems of that time are very similar to those we face today. Both sides of that conflict endured miscommunications, self-deception and even egomaniacal behavior, much the same as today. While there were errors in technological assessment, most of the problems involved the people element. An especially interesting “people” story was told in the battlefield story of Confederate Brigadier General Lewis “Lo” Armistead.
Lo’s brigade arrived at Gettysburg in the evening of the second day of battle. Both sides had taken on heavy casualties in the previous two days of battle and General Robert E. Lee was convinced that one more massive offensive assault would overwhelm the Union forces. Armistead’s brigade would be at the lead of the center of Pickett’s charge in the morning. It wasn’t the fear of the Union’s blazing cannons that beset him: What troubled him the most was the thought of reaching the top of the hill and facing his lifelong friend and Union General Winfield Scott Hancock. If he made the hill and encountered Hancock, how could he do harm to his lifelong friend? While not as dramatic as Armistead’s situation, today’s fire service leaders are many times faced with similar conundrums as they transition from firefighter and friend to company officer. Choose friendship or fulfillment of duty? Can we have both? It seems we still have much to learn in this area.
Back in the classroom, however, much of our coursework centered on the topics of adaptive leadership, the traits of leaders and how to develop leadership abilities. We were reminded that leaders need followers and about the importance of motivating people to follow. All of these tips and theories depend on how well we communicate with people. That critical component seems to be the key: the people element.