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The Journey: Missed Opportunities

A missed opportunity on the fire ground can lead to injuries and fatalities.

If you have been following this series of articles, we have been discussing the journey to fire service leadership. In this segment, we will discuss missed opportunities: Those things we wish we had done or had done differently.

We probably all have had a situation where when we learn of a friend's passing we would say something like, "I wish I had told them how I felt" or "I wish I had gone to see them more."

The point is that we have now missed that opportunity. The moment is gone. As much as we may regret it, we can't change it. If we take a moment to think about it, we may be able to avoid the pitfalls of these missed opportunities by being more attentive to others.

We can compare this to the fire service as well. We sit back after the fire has gone out and say, "I wish I had done this different or that different," for us this is a critique. We can wish we had done something different, but the fact is we didn't. What we did was what we did, and we have to live with it. We have missed the opportunity.

When we miss that opportunity we may never get a second chance. If someone has been injured or killed because of your actions, we may never get the opportunity to tell them how we feel. Telling the family we are sorry may be of little comfort. Any regrets we will have to live with. This is a cold, hard truth. Every missed opportunity is not that dramatic, but it does make the point of how our actions as leaders affect others.

There are no "do-overs" in the fire service; our "do-over" is the next alarm. That is when we can learn for our mistakes and apply our experience to the next situation. Woulda, coulda and shoulda should never enter into this discussion. If you coulda done something different, then you shoulda.

Then what woulda been different? These words come from failures. This is how you second-guess yourself. Firefighters and fire officers must be prepared for this. We can't fail. People's lives depend on our quick and proper actions. The time to learn is now. Don't let the opportunity pass you by. Leaders must limit the number of missed opportunities. Make every alarm a learning experience, for yourself as well as people you supervise. Their skills are a reflection of your instruction.

If you have never cut a roof at a fire as a firefighter and now you are an officer, you have missed that opportunity.

How critical that becomes depend on where you are assigned. Everything done by your subordinates, that you never did before you became their superior, is also a missed opportunity. Now we all can't do everything. But, as a leader, we must be familiar enough with the process to be able to speak on it with authority. That comes from experience.

Some leaders may have never worked in a truck company before they were promoted. They may have missed the opportunity to force a door but, their time in the engine may have given them years of experience in nozzle techniques or pump operation. This experience becomes their strength and forcible entry is a weakness.

Some would say that I don't need to know how to do everything. I am the leader and it's not my job,. My job is to get them to do it. That may be true but, let me give you an example. I don't need to know how to operate the pumps on the rig because that is the driver's job.

But what happens when the driver calls you on the radio and tells you he can't get the rig into pump or tells you he is drawing a vacuum? If you have never been a pump operator or at least trained in the pump operations you would not know what to do or how critical a problem either event may be. Now, how does it look for the leader when he has a blank look on his face when the guys ask him what to do?

If the firefighters are having trouble forcing the door, how can you tell if they are doing it right when you have never done it. That is when those missed opportunities will rear their ugly head.

We can imagine thousands of situations where this might happen. The point is it should not happen. The leader should know every job he is asking his or her people to do. You trained for this job. You took the job because you felt you could do a better job than the guy who was doing it, right? You weren't just handed the white hat or the keys to the chief's car and told, "you got it," were you? If you were you have really missed an opportunity. You have missed the journey that is the education. Every short cut on the journey is a missed opportunity.

The time to learn is now before the opportunity passes. For the aspiring leader, you must be like a sponge ready to soak up any bit of wisdom that oozes out of a situation. Take every experience and compare it to the way you would have handled it. How well did it work? How would you have done it differently? Or would you? For the current leader the learning should never stop.

Missed opportunities occur with training as well. Have you ever been on a call and needed to use a piece of equipment that you were not familiar with, or not as familiar as you ought to be, and said to yourself, "I wish I paid more attention in class when they explained this."

Very often it is easy to laugh and joke about events like this but it does point out a real problem. The time to realize you need training is before you need it. Every time you walked past the rig and didn't take a tool off and use it is a missed opportunity. Every time you said, "I'll drill on that tomorrow" and didn't is a missed opportunity. Excuses come easy, but the true test of a leader is how well they do things.

As a leader you will be faced with many tasks; some tougher than others. When faced with the toughest I remember a sign that was posted in the office of one firehouse I worked in, it read "Look for a way, not a way out" and right below it was any other sign that read "Make it happen, don't make excuses."

I hope this commentary provided you with greater insight to the road ahead on the path to fire service leadership. I will be continuing the discussion in upcoming issues. Until then, stay safe.

Comments and questions are welcomed, send them to Don't miss the opportunity to tell someone how you feel!

Look for the next article, "The Journey: Loyalty and Honesty."

CHRISTOPHER FLATLEY, a Contributing Editor, is a 20-year veteran of the FDNY and a lieutenant currently assigned to Ladder Company 21 in Manhattan. Chris has twice served as chief of the Blauvelt, NY, Volunteer Fire Company and is currently the assistant chief and training coordinator. He is a nationally certified Fire Instructor 1 and is an instructor at the Rockland County, NY, Fire Training Center and holds a degree in fire protection technology. He is a Master Exercise Practitioner on the Exercise Design Team through the Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness. To read Chris' complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Chris by e-mail at: