It's Not Your Father's Fire Service

It would seem to me that we have become a nation of individuals. The America which produced the greatest generation has now succeeded in producing the greatest economic debacle in decades. It is almost like the old call when things go bad. You know; every man for himself. See, we are capable of doing just about anything in America.

Just before I sat down to write this commentary, it was my good fortune to stumble across an excellent op-ed commentary in the Sunday Star-Ledger of Newark, NJ. In this interesting piece, Daniel Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, wrote of what he perceived as a serious lack of leadership at the upper levels of our government.

I found it interesting that the behaviors he observed, at the uppermost levels is just about the same as I have seen at a far lower level over the past several decades. Mr. Rothkopf spoke of how the spotlight which has shined on our leaders has served to diminish them in the eyes of the citizenry. He went on to quote Daniel Roth who, in a Wired magazine article stated that, "...tough times force-feed innovation, while good ones cultivate complacency."

I particularly liked his point that, "...In the end, a big part of the answer in our quest for leadership resides with us." He suggests that leaders will emerge to the extent that we demand and encourage them to develop. Herein lies a major part of the problem with leadership in the fire service. In far too many cases, we have settled for mediocre leadership when the times demanded much more. We have lived in the past when a move toward the future was in order.

Now let me offer the lesson of the day my friends. Let me be so bold as to suggest that you reach up into the dusty depths of your closet and search for something you may not often see a need to use in your daily life. I am referring to that device which my kindergarten teacher, Miss Newman, so lovingly referred to "your thinking cap." Ah, sweet memories of the old West Freehold School.

I do not know that I ever actually owned such a cap, but a failure to respond properly to Miss Newman did have the potential to allow me to spend the balance of the day wearing the "dunce cap." That is an object whose size, shape, and implications remain deeply impressed in my mind's eye to this very day.

None of us actually ever sought the "honor" of the large, cone-shaped chapeau, but we can recall its special shape and the accompanying chair which faced the corner of the classroom. Wearing the dunce cap meant that you had been tested and found wanting. I can still recall facing that corner and listening to the snickers of my buddies who had managed to avoid the honor of the cap and the corner, at least on that particular day.

The lesson I wish to share with you today is that the penalties for being dunce-cap material in the fire service are far more serious than a few moments spent in the corner of a classroom. They involve hospital or nursing home time in the case of serious injuries. They can end a productive career and fill your life (and the lives of your friends) with untold amounts of pain and suffering.

Worse yet, they might involve death. They might involve a period of sadness spent honoring someone in a local funeral home if that person is killed due to their own stupidity (or worse yet, your stupidity).

Let me now roll back the clock for a bit and take yet another trip down memory lane to the heart of my story. Many years ago there was a General Motors advertisement which was created to lure younger buyers to a product which had become somewhat long in the tooth.

Oldsmobile motor cars had been around for a long, long time when someone on their public relations staff came up with the series of commercials which revolved around a single, central theme. Their product was pitched to the public as, "Not Your Father's Oldsmobile."

Perhaps this advertising campaign made sense to the people within the walled city wherein the car giants live and labor to lure your money and mine to their pockets (Detroit). However, it apparently did not convince a sufficient number of consumers to flock to their local Oldsmobile dealers. The proof of my statement here is really quite simple. There are no longer any such things as Oldsmobile's or car dealers who sell Oldsmobile's.

Times changed, tastes changed, and their product did not keep up. Therefore, the Oldsmobile passed away from a lack of consumer interest. The product designers, marketers, and makers did not pay attention to the outside world and the ways in which it was changing. A failure to know their environment led to a series of catastrophic consequences for the people at GM who made Oldsmobile automobiles. The result was the demise of a GM division.

That, my friends, is the premise I will work with in this article. It is my contention in this commentary visit with you that the same thing can happen to you and me. If we fail to pay attention to what is happening around us, it is entirely possible that we will never notice that the world is changing and threatens to pass us by.

This would be bad enough in the regular world, but an ignorance of change and development in the fire service world can have serious, catastrophic consequences. If we do not keep up, we can die. That is the basic premise of this week's visit with you.

It is my thought that the world wherein you and I deliver fire protection has changed. Further, the many parts which make up the whole of the fire service have also changed. This may seem odd to you, but you must remember that none of us actually sees a lot of changes happening on any given day in the world around us. However, when you stop to add up the changes which have occurred over the past two to three decades, you can see that there is a great deal of potential for problems if we fail to keep watch on the world in which we live. Let me suggest that this will affect each of us somewhat differently.

Your ties to the past will be directly dependent on your chronological age. If you are in your teens and 20s, what you see is what you have always seen. However, as a person ages, they accumulate experiences, knowledge, and memories. Let me warn you right now that most things seem always to have been better in the past. This is because of the tendency of people to view the past through the rose-colored glasses of history. But were they really?

Things were a lot more dangerous in the days before we embraced the concepts of safety and technology. People fell from moving fire vehicles. People coughed up their guts because only sissies wore self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). People were burned while wearing rubber coats and gloves.

We have moved beyond all of that, or have we? Unfortunately, far too many fire departments are still being operated like some form of local mom and pop hardware store, laboring in the shadow of a world where giants such as Lowe's and Home Depot are out there, hard at work, to beat your brains in.

Let me be blunt. This is not your father's fire service any longer. Let me share some of the things which have changed. Here is a short list of those areas where changes have occurred:

  • Everywhere! Is that short enough for you?

I am sorry, that was the "wise-ass" in me jumping out. Perhaps that list was not definitive enough. Let me take a closer look and tell you what I see.

How about:

  1. Society
  2. People
  3. Operational Issues
  4. Technological Things
  5. Things We Do

That is a bit more specific, but perhaps you need for me to target it into those areas where you live and work.

Societal Issues

  1. People move around a lot more than in the past.
  2. People tend to volunteer less.
  3. There is a diminishing level of community involvement across the board.
  4. People seem less willing to come together for the common good.

People Issues

  1. Two income families and multiple jobs limit the ability of people to join our volunteer fire departments.
  2. The declining economy has ruled out the hiring of sufficient staff to provide a proper level of fire protection.
  3. People are unwilling to provide the funds for our fire departments (career, volunteer, or combination).

Operational Issues

  1. Building construction has changed to the point of being dangerous for those of us who would engage in combat firefighting operations.
  2. 'Tough-guy' attitudes have polluted the gene pool and have stymied our ability to operate in a positive, thoughtful manner.
  3. Techniques and tactics have not changed since the 1970's.

Technology

  1. People are building things which are designed to fall down.
  2. Building materials have been created which will burn more quickly and fail sooner than once was the norm.
  3. Larger homes are being built that provide a challenge to even the most highly-staffed fire departments.

These are just a few of the changes which have occurred in the world. How have you and your fire department responded to these changes, or have you chosen to ignore reality in live in a fantasy world population by images and traditions from the past?

In far too many cases it would be my guess that you are still doing business at the same old location, and in the same old way. If I were to ask you why you are avoiding the future and the changes which have occurred, I believe that the answer would be one of the following:

  1. Oh, I hadn't noticed.
  2. We are doing things in the same way and manner as my father (and his father before him).
  3. If it was good enough for my Dad, it is good enough for me.
  4. We must be doing things right: We haven't killed anyone.

The cure for this disease is not hard to prescribe. "Get your head out of your ass." This seems simple enough however, like many effective remedies the taste of the cure deters people from taking their dose of the medicine. That does not stop me from writing another prescription for your and your sidekicks.

I have read time and again about how we all need to work hard together to insure that everyone goes home safe and well. It is a laudable goal, one which I have been a part of since this effort got started in Tampa back in 2004. We know how and why people are dying. However, we just cannot seem to make a dent in the problem, or so the mounting statistics would indicate.

We have been at it for five years now and I want to tell you that it seems like we have gained a tremendous expertise in the art of treading water. In spite of the best efforts of a corps of dedicated people, we still have people out there who think we can cure the disease by simply wishing the problems of our fire service away. That is the way it seems to me.

There seems to be a whole cadre of people who are operating as though all of the lessons and research applied to other people, but not to them. Frankly, I am at a loss as to how to explain to these folks that the world has changed and that they have not. I keep writing and I keep lecturing. Many fine and dedicated people like Ron Siarnicki, and Billy Goldfeder, among others, have been working overtime on this issue. Yet we are where we are in the year 2009, and not where we had hoped to be.

Let me suggest that each of us can play a part in this. Earlier in this commentary I spoke of the impact of experience and education on each of us. All things being equal, as we grow and mature within the service, we learn things. I would suggest that much of what was good in our father's fire service has been lost because we who were there have failed to share it with the newcomers to our service. However, there can be a problem which you will run headlong into.

There are also those younger folks out there who seem to be suffering through the newer is better syndrome. These folks are the ones who come out of the fire academy with six to eight weeks of knowledge, which they immediately translate into six to eight years of experience. They will confront their more senior members and challenge their ideas and their abilities. They will challenge authority and demand attention.

This is a real change from your father's fire service. Trust me. I am old enough to be your father. I was there back in 1966 when times were a lot tougher. Rookies did what they were told and obeyed all of the rules. Things are different now. However, if you approach these changes in the proper way, you can have a positive impact.

This will require you old-timers to do something that I have been trying to do for years now. You must listen. You must evaluate. You must separate the wheat from the chaff with your newer members. Times are different and this mandates that you and I be different. The same holds true for the newer folks. They must listen and evaluate. All sides to the equation need to be heard by the other members of their team. That is, I suggest, the secret to success.

It is not easy. However, if you fail to understand that this is not your father's fire service, you may find that the world has passed you by. You may find that you and your style of leadership (and followership) have gone the way of your local Oldsmobile dealer. By the way, I only owned one Oldsmobile in 45 years of car ownership and driving.

By the way, I will be headed off to Washington, D.C. this week to attend the Fire Caucus Dinner on April 2. Wish me luck. I will let you know what comes from our annual political pilgrimage to Mount Bull by the Potomac.


HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com 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. He recently published Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip, which was also the subject of a Firehouse.com blog To read Harry's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Harry by e-mail at drharrycarter@optonline.net.

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