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The Empty Room

One of the great joys of my life revolves around the act and art of communications. Each day, I look forward to reading the newspaper, watching the television news channels, and interacting with my friends and fellow firefighters. Like many among you, interacting with others forms a great part of my life. Whether it is sharing conversations, driving the fire company pumper here in Adelphia, or playing my tuba with a musical group, each day provides a new chance to interact with the people and things which provide love, excitement, joy, and pleasure in my life.

In line with this it was my good fortune to hear a very interesting question put forward in church the other day. Chris Van DeBunte, our associate pastor at the Colts Neck Reformed Church was preaching a sermon on the origins of the Lord's Prayer. During the course of his presentation, he spoke about conversations he had with a college roommate more than a decade ago.

It is my guess this was one of those probing discussions that friends have from time to time. The conversation was in many parts. It started as a discussion over why Chris got up so early on days when he could sleep past noon. It then went on to a question regarding why Chris went to church. As I recall, Chris's answer revolved around the twin concepts of faith and family. Still seeking to stimulate the discussion, Chris's roommate then went on to ask him if he would still go to church if no one else went.

I never did hear Chris's original answer to this query. My mind suddenly started racing in a direction that probably never occurred to our pastor. I pictured a pastor preaching to an empty room. I pictured a wealth of words being wasted upon a church narthex which was devoid of human presence and consumption. At this point my thoughts turned back to Chris's comments that preaching to an empty room would be very difficult indeed.

A wee, still voice in the back of my mind then began to recite the words of a Biblical imperative. That mental pronouncement was saying over and over that, "...there was a voice crying in the wilderness." The concept of a voice crying in the wilderness then began to take root within me. I imagined a solitary voice crying out and there being no one to respond to the message.

Why were these words so intriguing to me? Initially I could not figure it out. Then suddenly a bit of philosophical fluff drifted into my mind's eye. It was at this point that memories of the discussions held in my philosophy class at Brookdale Community College back in the 1970's began to flow.

I began to recall the many circular discussions regarding the old argument about the sounds created by a tree falling in the forest. You know that one. It goes something like, "...if a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around, does it make a sound when it strikes the earth?" To the best of my recollection there was no real consensus on the answer to that one. But as one who revels in the use of thoughts and words, I took full advantage of the moment.

During my part of the discussion, I stood behind the theory of sound waves and receptors. The absence of the second does not deny the presence of the first. I lost out to all of the touchy feely folks who felt that it was the importance of the interaction. Without someone to receive the sound message, there could be no message, it was felt. As a matter of practical necessity, I zipped my lip and settled for a "B" in that course.

However, the point of this discussion really is quite simple. How many of you out there in firefighter-land feel like you are preaching to an empty room? Forget preaching to the choir. How many of you feel all alone? Whether it is a problem with people, firefighting skills, budgetary matters, safety, or interpersonal relationships, how many of you practice for your time at the fire station by talking to the wall in your garage, or the mirror in your bathroom? How can you reach the people with whom you must interact and deliver the services of your fire department if you feel stranded on a desert island of despair?

As a writer, I am chasing this ghost all of the time. As I am creating this message for you, I am comfortably seated within the air-conditioned comfort of my home office. There is no one here to stimulate me. My wife has gone shopping so there is no one to agree or disagree with me. In essence, I am literally preaching to an empty room, or at the very least, an empty screen. This does not stop me though. It is up to me to preach to the empty room of my computer screen.

Experience has taught me to work through the normal feelings of loneliness and angst. As a writer, I can have no meaning until my words are seen, evaluated, and weighed. They then take on a meaning of their own and are accepted or rejected by you, the target of my efforts. As I have written many times over the years, my mission in life revolves around sharing knowledge and experience. To do this involves operating in two distinctly different theaters of life.

On the one hand, I write for you. I create thoughts, turn them into a series of connected words, and then try to make sense out of them for you. I can only dance up to the end of the communications model. I create the message and send it out to you. You have a responsibility to evaluate what I am saying and then determine what degree of relevance my words hold for you. That is the end of what I can do as a writer. You then must accept the burden of doing something. You must first evaluate my words. It is up to you to then ignore, reject, or accept what I have said.

On the other hand, from time to time I serve as a public speaker in various venues around the country. Within this role I do the same basic tasks as in the previous example. I create thoughts, turn them into a series of connected words, create a PowerPoint program and then try to make sense out of them for you. However, as a public speaker, a whole series of extremely exciting and interesting things can happen.

It is my good fortune to have the privilege of sharing my thoughts with you in a personal way. I can add emphasis to certain words. I can demonstrate emotion in the way I present my words to you. I can make you laugh or cry. I can laugh or cry along with you. I can respond to your enthusiasm. The one thing I cannot do is make you understand. Only you can choose to take my words and give them a personal meaning.

In spite of this, it is the interplay with fellow travelers on this big blue marble of ours that allows me to have a better shot at stimulating you and the others within the hearing of my words. I see you as living, breathing human beings. Like me, you have hopes and dreams; joy and fears. As you respond to my words, I am better able to respond to your actions. All-in-all, it is much nicer to share my thoughts with you within the confines of a classroom.

Unfortunately, there are only so many of you who can afford to travel to the places when I teach. Given the poor economy and the lack of proper funding, it is my prediction that this number may grow smaller. Similarly, fewer groups and associations have the resources to bring me out to you. That is just a fact of life in this the 21st Century.

However, thanks to the Internet, I am able to come into your computer and share my thoughts with you. That is what I am doing at this very moment. Let me suggest that there are a few things which you must incorporate into your communications bag of tricks.

Let me start by suggesting that it is critical for you to know as much as possible about the topics which make up your areas of responsibility. You need to be informed and aware of the latest developments within the field of fire department operations. In order to accomplish this, you must develop a database which has the classic fire department operational components. You need to develop credibility among those with whom you labor.

Another concept which is not widely involved among many in our younger generation is that of paying your dues. No one ever starts at the top (unless they happen to be the bosses' son, and the boss is a dumb-ass). You need to leave your job, do your job, and build an ever-growing reservoir of knowledge and experience as to how to do your job. In addition, you must build a reputation based up a rational approach to doing your job. No one likes to be lead by a crazed, wild-eyed, hophead of boss.

In addition to this you should work to create a body of people who share a common interest in the tasks which must be accomplished. You must work to be able to properly represent the many concerns and interests of a group of people share a solid bond. People will not listen to someone who fails to take their interests into account. Nobody likes a my-way or the highway sort of leader.

You need to develop listening skills and work to integrate the ideas and ideals of your people into a shared approach to getting the job done in your fire department. You must come across as a member (leader) of your team. It is critical for you to ask for the help of your fellow team members. None of us has all of the answers. Should you hold yourself out as a know-it-all, let me suggest that your chances of success range somewhere in the range of 0 to -10.

You cannot be seen as a person who is merely passing through on the way to somewhere else. In the world of local government, people like this are known as gadflies, and they can be a real pain in the butt. They bitch, moan, and groan over every little aspect of how things are done. They are long on talk and real short on substance. They will tell you what you are doing wrong, but come up empty when pressed for their means of solving a problem.

These are critical tasks which you need to place into your leadership tool kit. I believe that many of you will fail to see the meaning of my missive here. You will look at the words and dismiss them as the ranting of an over-the-hill, retired fire chief. I sure hope this is not the case. Let me assure you that by ignoring my suggestions you can guarantee an empty room in your fire station.

As I sit here at my computer marveling over the range of thoughts which have jumped out of my brain and through the keys of my computer, feelings of joy and accomplishment are washing over my heart. My primary goal in life is to share knowledge with my fellow sisters and brothers within the American Fire Service. While there is still no one here in the room with me at this very moment, I feel as though I have reached out beyond the confines of my empty room. It is pleasing to think that maybe one person amongst you will take a look at my words and find something to use in your life.

As my wife and I were leaving the church at the end of the service, we paused to shake hands with Pastor Van DeBunte. As my wife moved on, I leaned over and thanked him for his message. I then asked him which did he think was easier; preaching to the choir or speaking to an empty room? His response was truly enlightening. It went something like this: "At least the empty room does not think it knows it all."

Let me close with a simple thought. Do not be afraid of the empty room. Fill it with thoughts and words. Let it be filled to overflowing so that when someone accidentally opens the door, they will be knocked to the pavement by the weight of your words. Have a good week and remember to abide by the old Latin motto: Non Illegitimi Carborundum. Which is to say, don't let the bastards wear you down. Let me suggest that these are words to live by in this the 21st Century. Take care and stay safe.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Follow Harry on his "A View From my Front Porch" blog. He recently published Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip. You can reach Harry by e-mail at