Fire Officer 101: So What do These Bugles Really Mean?

For years, I would see the slogan, "The Future Belongs to Those Who Prepare For It," posted on the wall of the Henderson, NC, Fire Department training classroom.

Chief Danny Wilkerson used to say these same words to many of the young firefighters and officers who walked into that room. As an instructor and a part-time member of that department, it always struck me as an encouragement to continue to push to make a difference. Often times I personally struggled with just what that slogan was saying.

Well, for the first time as I write this article, it has become crystal clear. The entire slogan was driven home with just one e-mail blast from a great fire service colleague - Deputy Chief Billy Golfeder with his most recent Secret List publication. Below is some of it.

"Sometimes....not everyone goes home.

In the discussions, one of the young firefighters who was involved with the rescue told me that he now hated the term "everyone goes home" because, obviously, Kevin did not. It made me start to think. Was the slogan a problem?

It has nothing to do with a slogan. The slogan "Everyone Goes Home" is an attitude...an attitude within a fire department that we'll do all we can to try and bring all of our firefighters home. It was and still is an attitude. Some of the younger firefighters understandably, just didn't get it at the time.

  • It means that if we don't drive like idiots, we'll probably make it home.
  • It means if we follow standards such as NFPA 1403, firefighter trainees will probably make it home.
  • It means if we put our seat belts on and we collide on the way to a fire, we'll probably make it home.
  • It means if we weigh 100 lbs too much, and we eat more salads, we'll probably make it home.
  • It means that if it is obvious the building will collapse and we stay out of the way, we'll probably make it home.
  • It means if we have the right amount of trained staffing and good bosses at a fire, we'll probably make it home.
  • .....and it means that if we drill and train on the stuff we need to do regularly, such as the ability to quickly get water on the fire, we'll probably make it home."

The above excerpt really drives me to focus on the topic "What Do These Bugles Really Mean?"

We, as leaders today, will face the end of our careers. Many of my mentors are at that point currently. However, the leadership lessons they can still share are countless. Thank God, that these folks took an interest in us, the leaders of the current fire service, when we were youthful firefighters.

As I look over the fire service today, I can see that our fields are full of ripe future leaders just waiting to be harvested. Consequently, we often scorn at the work ethic or analytical decision making that these individuals use as they make critical decisions.

I can see clearly where my first mentors --Jerry Green and Rick Rice, Mullens, WV --could see a ripening prospect as they made extra efforts to shape the future. As I see it, the old practice of using our youth to accomplish our work is the base preparation needed to make them tomorrow's leader.

So, where do we start this development process? We start by not accepting anything less than the best in everything we do. Even further, we need to teach and share with our youth our experiences, even the ones that were not victories.

Albert Einstein never viewed any unsuccessful attempt as a failure, rather a win in knowing one more way that didn't work. These experiences will carry lifelong lessons learned.

Today, I frequently find myself referring to situations, problems, successes and lessons learned as it relates to similar issues they are facing as I mentor to younger fire service members. My father used to call this the "school of hard knocks education of life." But today many fire officers never take time to share, mentor and teach our future leaders.

As we begin this process, we must create an appealing environment. I always remember Chief Dan Jones of the Chapel Hill, NC, Fire Department, being positive even when the chips didn't fall the way he wanted them. He could make any black cloud have a silver lining. As I travel and have the opportunity to spend time with department leaders from across the county, it never fails that someone is always negative. Nothing is ever positive. They can't make a win-win situation out of anything. These folks are destined to make the same type of leaders.

We must present helpful teaching methods. They include three learning domains. Fire service leaders can really impact teaching by sharing real life experiences. Share the mistakes as well!

Knowledge is Power...Share It!
The statement is often used by many including myself, but what does it truly mean? It means that you will freely give of your knowledge and wisdom to others withholding nothing. It never fails, I will see a leader of an organization trying to hold information and knowledge from the next generation because they are afraid that this up-and-coming group will end up smarter than they are and as a leader they will lose control.

Well take a reality check. For as long as I can remember, each generation has obviously gotten smarter, more technologically advanced and has superseded the generation before them. So what makes that so bad? I thought we were trying to make things better? I am sure this will hurt a few toes but the truth is the truth. The folks doing the withholding are the dumb ones.

If you combine knowledge everyone gets better, even yourself! (Ouch!) That's right I took a jab at a few of you out there, but if we want to progress - and if we are going to make progress we have to share our knowledge, both good and bad, with our youthful leaders to-be. Their future depends on it. In sharing this knowledge, we have to be dynamic instructors creating engaging learning environments.

A leader/instructor profile needs to encompass several areas to be able to meet these challenges. First, we must find new motivation. Motivation that exceeds all levels previous. We must bring newfound excitement to the leadership programs we deliver. The excitement level that comes with the leader carries over and motivates the student to the same level or higher. We must enter the educational setting that instruction is to take place with an attitude not one of just doing the minimum.

Leaders need to develop the right attitude about instructing. Attitude starts with evaluating whether you are meeting the mission statement of the fire service.

Secondly, you must evaluate whether your training is realistic. That is, realistic for your situation, operations, and based on your resources. Higher levels of training are great and have their place, but are we meeting all the basic needs of the future leaders? If not, we need to reevaluate what and how we are teaching/mentoring.

As we begin developing these new leaders, we must insure that we are creating level appropriate environments for their mentoring. Nothing can frustrate an individual more than to be placed above their capabilities. We need to evaluate each person, and be brutally honest with them.

So where does Chief Goldfeder's piece play in? I think it can be best said that for use to reach the attitude of "Everyone Goes Home," we must do the right things. Leadership plays the most significant role in this. As future leaders begin to develop, they need to address the issues, learn from our mistakes, make educated and calculated risk/benefit analysis assessments and be brutally honest when necessary.

I saw this when I had an e-mail argument with an insurance agency on seat belt laws as to whether or not firefighters are exempt here in North Carolina. Point is, who cares if we are exempt or not! We know that some things just don't add up to being good risk benefit analysis decisions. We have witnessed several firefighter injuries and deaths from ejections from motor vehicle crashes over the last few months.

If they were belted, they probably would not have been ejected and would maybe have survived. I agree with Chief Goldfeder, it has nothing to do with a slogan. The slogan "Everyone Goes Home" is an attitude. It's an attitude in a fire department. It should be everyone's attitude. Some of the leaders and firefighters just didn't get it at the time.

  • It means that if we don't drive like idiots, we'll probably make it home.
  • It means if we follow standards such as NFPA 1403, firefighter trainees will probably make it home.
  • It means if we put our seatbelts on and we collide on the way to a fire, we'll probably make it home.
  • It means if we weigh 100 pounds too much, and we eat more salads, we'll probably make it home.
  • It means that if it is obvious the building will collapse and we stay out of the way, we'll probably make it home.
  • It means if we have the right amount of trained staffing and good bosses at a fire, we'll probably make it home.
  • If we train future officers with good officers now, then we will most likely get better and we can impact everyone going home.
  • ...and it means that if we drill and train on the stuff we need to do regularly, such as the ability to quickly get water on the fire, we'll probably make it home."

I am looking hard at the fire service around me. I see a critical gap that we must address. That gap is the company officer. We spend a tremendous amount of time training firefighters and pump operators, but just how much time do we spend training people for the next step? Most departments try to utilize the firefighting experience that has been gained, however, is that enough? I say no!

We need to focus on the other things that company officers do more of than just run emergency responses, which is about 10 percent of the job. We need to focus on two factors that affect the company officer's position in the organization.

First, we take relatively inexperienced personnel at a company officer leadership role and place them in one of the most challenging positions in the fire service. We do this with little to no training. In the corporate world, this would never happen.

Secondly, we often place these new company officers at a work site that is remote from their supervisor. We give them little direction, and we expect miracles. When this doesn't work out or we see that there are issues, what do we do? We make the next promotion and do the same things all over again expecting different results. We all know what that is the definition of.

I challenge the young and old alike. If you are a current leader in the fire service, stand up, get a backbone, polish your bugles, take a stance, start being an educator, mentor and be a true leader.

If you are the youth of today, I challenge you to develop yourselves and be the leaders of tomorrow. I think Chief Dennis Compton puts it best, "Lead, Follow or Get out of the Way."

Fellow fire service brothers and sisters, tomorrow hinges on what you do today. The future belongs to those who prepare for it! Be a leader who shapes our future positively by preparing our youth of today to lead tomorrow.


DOUGLAS CLINE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a 28-year veteran and student of the fire service serving as the fire chief with the City of Eden, NC, Fire Department. Cline is the first vice president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) and is a well known international speaker presenting a myriad of programs. Chief Cline is also a highly published author, including Company Officer Test Preparation Guide Book with a scenario training DVD. He served as the technical content advisor and contributing author for the Rapid Intervention Company Operations text published by Delmar Cengage Learning. He also worked as a test bank developer for the Fire Department Incident Safety Officer. Chief Cline has participated in the The Leader's Toolbox podcast on Radio@Firehouse.

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