The Leadership Power of ONE

I am always amazed at how powerless so many firefighters feel in their departments. Too many firefighters at every level in the fire service do not recognize their potential to make a difference in their fire department, especially when it comes to...


I am always amazed at how powerless so many firefighters feel in their departments. Too many firefighters at every level in the fire service do not recognize their potential to make a difference in their fire department, especially when it comes to initiating positive change. I want to...


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You won't see Brian's name in any of the newspapers that announced the new program. You won't see his name on the side of the helicopter. He wasn't on the maiden flight with the fire chief and the mayor. And he does not need that credit. He was just proud to see his dream and vision become a reality after eight years. That is influential leadership and Brian was at the bottom of the organization as a firefighter when the process started.

Brian did not give up on the idea that one person can make a big difference. It took a lot of people to make the dream a reality, but it took one person who was willing to invest the time, energy and even money to get the concept off the ground. Most people would have given up at many points in the process as it became more and more difficult to implement this massive change in the department. One person with a lot of vision and perseverance can make a lot happen!

I want to share another example with you. Rocky Robinson lives and works in a New York City neighborhood known as Bedford-Stuyvesant ("Bed-Stuy"), one of the most dangerous and impoverished neighborhoods in the United States. When Rocky was 26 years old, his 7-year-old niece was hit by a car. No one on scene knew first aid or CPR. The average response time for an ambulance was 30 minutes. By the time help arrived, she was dead.

This drove Rocky to become a paramedic. While becoming a paramedic in New York, he discovered that more than 50% of the city's emergency calls came from high-crime areas like Bed-Stuy, where the wait time in these areas for emergency assistance averaged 25–30 minutes after calling 911. Calls in more affluent areas were taking a fraction of the time for response because these communities had organized their own ambulance corps to supplement the city services that were being overwhelmed with calls.

Rocky decided to start his own ambulance corps in Bed-Stuy with a fellow EMT. Unbeknownst to them at the time, they started the first minority-run ambulance service in the country. The obstacles they would face would be overwhelming. They first occupied an abandoned building and used an old Chevrolet and two-way radios to receive emergency calls and get to the scene of accidents, shootings, stabbings and fires. When the car wouldn't start, they would strap oxygen tanks to their backs and hoof it to the emergency scene. They were mocked by drug dealers, cops, bystanders and everyone else except the people whose lives were being saved.

The space they occupied had been used by drug dealers who were not eager to give it up. The windows were shot at, they received threats, and Rocky and his partner were shot at on their way to calls. The drug dealers finally cut them some slack when they realized they were saving some of their own people.

Finding a Purpose in Life

Rocky began to build a crew of volunteers. He had to draw from the community he lived in, so many of the volunteers were recovering alcoholics, the unemployed and drug dealers trying to straighten out. After months of training, these young volunteers began to go on calls and found a purpose in life. Some went on to become nurses and doctors.

A local newspaper finally ran a story on the two crazy guys running around the neighborhood with tanks strapped to their backs. A philanthropist saw the story and donated an old ambulance to their cause. Rocky finally had his true ambulance corps.

On the first day of using the ambulance, Rocky's team arrived first on scene to a fire and rescued 10 people from a burning building. The next day, they delivered a baby. They developed a continual pattern of being first on scene with an average response time of four minutes (quite the leap from the normal 25- to 30-minute response time for the city services). Donations and grants began to come in from people all over the country who were inspired by Rocky's tenacity and vision. When times were lean, Rocky held car washes or solicited funds in the street if he had to — whatever it took to keep the corps going and continuing to save lives.

The Bed-Stuy Volunteer Ambulance Corps has been in continuous operation since 1988, and is now the busiest volunteer ambulance service for its size in the nation, answering over 100 calls per month. For its remarkable accomplishments and ongoing efforts, the Bed-Stuy Volunteer Ambulance Corps has received numerous honors, including the Robin Hood Foundation Hero of the Year Award and New York City Hero Award.