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Where on the Bugle is Your Career - Part 1

As of late, my career has caused me to be harshly critical of myself in the context of my job performance and my role within my organization. In doing that, I find myself comparing my abilities and effectiveness against those around me, as well as my mentors. In hindsight, I offer that the process has actually been quite interesting and I have learned a great deal about myself and others. It is what I have learned and witnessed that has manifested itself in my head as what I affectionately call “The Bugle Theory.”

Have you ever worked with someone, or God forbid for someone, who accepted with much fanfare their next promotion, yet everyone (including that person) knew that they were simply incapable of effectively filling the role? You know the people; the guys or gals who refuse to accept the true spirit of Brotherhood, yet applies for social committee chairman at the local volunteer department. Or the one who couldn’t tell you the difference between a pike pole and a closet hook, but wants to be the supply sergeant. Or, my personal favorite, the one who has less personality than a rock, yet accepts the promotion to fire prevention lieutenant because lieutenant pay is “where it is at!”

And, if all those examples aren’t enough, I am willing to bet that everyone who reads this knows of a fire chief who was hired or elected because he or she was the most popular or had the most certifications and looked great on paper, but really could not even lead a group of kindergartners to lunch. Now, having shared all that negativity, I offer that there is little that we can do to change our lot with those who fit the above descriptions, if they currently still hold such positions. But do not lose hope my brothers and sisters, for our future can be much brighter.

In my attempt to rationalize the crazy mess that is my thought process and the data that fills it, I have come to the conclusion that a firefighter’s perspective is directly related to his or her rank and vice versa. Stay with me on this one, I hope to bring it together for you in the end. The bugle (upside down, so the common sense doesn’t spill out I am told) represents how firefighters “see” the world that is the American Fire Service.

Consider that new hires, recruits, boots (if that is what you call them), are at the bottom narrow section of the bugle. They see things as they relate to their immediate surroundings; are they doing what they are supposed to do? Are they keeping their equipment clean, are they making sufficient progress on their class load and general knowledge of their department and the fire service in general? Their perspective revolves around them, and rightly so. At that level, it should! They need to build their own foundation and earn their place in the firehouse and establish themselves as members of their organization and their crew.

As those new hires get some experience under their belt, they slowly rise up the chute of the bugle as it gradually widens. Their view of things changes, and with some luck, their perspective of all things firefighting broadens. They begin to see not just the way to do that (whatever that is), but this is why we do it that way and if we don’t these are the consequences. With each experience or passing year, they gain a better understanding of how decisions are made and more importantly how they affect the proverbial “big picture.”

As firefighters progress in their career, they obviously mature, and in some cases they are promoted to higher ranks. In this process we must ensure that their understanding of their department, their state, and even the national fire service expands appropriately. This, in my opinion, is the most critical of times in a career and where many I have seen fail to prove themselves worthy of promotion or increased responsibility. It is at this level that we must educate ourselves and the rest of our people on the fire service as a whole. Not just the fire suppression side of the house, but on the budgetary process, the political pressures, the whys and how’s of our departments goals and objectives. All the while, we must ensure that we all maintain our educational progression so that we are not left behind as the service continues to move forward as it has since its inception.

The next step of progression is middle management or the beginning of the bell portion of the bugle, for lack of better terminology. These are the ones who realistically get it done in the fire service, much like the sergeants in the military. They have boots on the ground; they have direct connection to both the firefighters on the floor as well as the ones in the hall. And they have the responsibility of having broad enough perspective of their department to lead those who follow them and answer to those they follow.

At the top of the bugle, the one person who should have the broadest of perspective about how a fire department operates, the politics (yes, a necessary evil), the personnel management, the payroll if applicable, and a host of other intricate aspects of leading a fire department of today, is (or should be) the chief. They should have the biggest picture and the ability to make decisions based on that perspective, regardless of popularity or fear of reprisal.

Where I have recognized frequent problems and the “us versus them” mindset that often times finds its way onto the bay floor, is when people move up the bugle (promotions), but ignore or miss the boat when it comes to consideration for all that there is involved with leading firefighters and ultimately a fire department. This leads to a hostile work environment at best and an ineffective fire department at the very least.

So the question begs to be asked, how do we minimize the potential for inept leaders and pay raises instead of promotions? Well, that my friends begins with you and I, at least in my useless opinion. Someone in my career imparted some spectacular wisdom upon me, “Do not give up when you cannot change what you see as wrong, instead work hard to put yourself in a position where you can successfully improve on it and avoid the mistakes of others while you do.” That work, I submit, begins with you and me.

Now please do not consider me sitting on a perch and speaking from on high. I am not an officer, yet. I am a senior firefighter who above even my own ambition, wants only to see our service progress despite financial constraints, despite less desirables amongst our ranks, and despite ourselves. I have only recently figured out where on the bugle I fall and what it is that I lack to move up. Now the challenge remains, how do I make the changes to get up there? So to you I pose the question, “Where are you on the bugle?”

See Lee Live! Lee Levesque will be presenting “Public Relations & Fire Prevention: Effective Tactics for the 21st Century Fire Service,” with Dan Byrne, at Firehouse Expo, July 19 – 23, in Baltimore.

LEE LEVESQUE is a firefighter and public affairs officer for the Lady's Island St. Helena Fire District in South Carolina. A 20 year veteran of the fire service, both career and volunteer, and is a fire and life safety educator instructor. Lee is a member of the NFA Alumni Association. You can reach Lee by e-mail at: levesque@lishfd.org.

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