Rebuilding the Bridge on a Solid Foundation

Many times I have written about a variety forces which have been at work while my brother and many of my buddies have labored in the vineyards of the Newark, New Jersey Fire Department. Sometimes I made sure you knew it was Newark and at other times I made sure you did not. Many were the incidents related to me by people that I love, know, and trust.

No matter the time or place, many of us on the job would utter a phrase which eventually became famous for the aura of its understatement. Those words that always came back to haunt us were simple and few in number. They went something like this: "things cannot get any worse than this."

Although I am retired, I maintain close contact with my brother and a great many of the friends I made during my time on the NFD. Over the past few weeks there seems to have been a feeling that the upcoming, non-partisan election would bring changes. Over the past few weeks I began to sense a change in the air.

The election has come and gone. For the first time in twenty years, the city is going to have a new mayor. After 20 years at the helm, Mayor Sharpe James will be handing the reins of power over to Mayor-Elect Corey Booker, and now the time has arrived to put the burden of future success on the next leadership team that will be charged with guiding the future of the Newark Fire Department.

While the advice in this commentary is targeted toward my friends in Newark, I believe that it can be of value to just about every fire department in the world. It is my belief that it can be of value in any situation where a change in leadership is about to occur. Hence I am going to speak about the lineage, heritage, and traditions of a fire department. Should you belong to a fire department I would invite you to pay attention to the words that follow.

My friends, it was my privilege to attend and participate in a truly watershed event within the Newark, New Jersey Fire Department on Thursday evening May 19. That was the night that the NFD Historical Association sponsored their "First Annual Irish Wake." This was a really great idea that was created within the bright, young minds of Frank Bellina, Damian Emmerick, and Darren Rispoli.

For those of you familiar with Irish heritage and traditions, the wake is the party wherein the life of the deceased is fondly recalled and liberally toasted. I have attended a few of those in my time. In some cases these wakes were held in the living room of the deceased, who would be lying in repose on the far side of the room. This venerable tradition comes from a time in the past when it was common for the wake to he held at home.

The deceased would be remembered fondly and toasted frequently. Stories about their lives would abound and the efforts of their lives would be celebrated. It was not a sterile trip to your local funeral home. It was an emotional journey in the home of a friend.

So it was to be at the 1st Annual Irish Wake in Newark. It was an event different from any I have ever attended in Newark. Rather than celebrating the death of someone or something, this wake was held to celebrate the possibilities for a bright new future which may lie just ahead. This party was held as part of a conscious effort to rekindle the old-time spirit of the Newark Fire Department.

This event was the first step in an informal plan to improve the morale and camaraderie of the fire department. I think that the people behind this movement are on the right track. However it is officially up to those people who will take up the reins of leadership on July 1, 2006 to make sure that the efforts now underway to build up the morale of the people on the department are not squandered.

Let me assure you that the current plan to recreate morale and camaraderie is not an official departmental effort. That is one thing that sets it apart from many teambuilding efforts I have seen in the past. The people are doing it because they want to create a new environment.

This is a totally unofficial endeavor created by people who care about the department and their fellow travelers within the department. The plan involves bringing together the younger members of the department with the veteran members of the department.

It is important to note that a number of retired members (such as yours truly) were added into the mix. Our part of the equation was to share what we experienced during our time on the department. All of this was done in a light-hearted mood with the appropriate ceremonial trappings being provided by the Newark Firefighter's Pipe Band which served as the central focus.

I should point out that during my time on the department we had no pipe band of our own. Now there is, and what a fine body of men it is. It has a membership which is diverse, talented, and has only one basic criterion for membership. You have to be (or have been) a firefighter on the department. I see this band serving as a rallying point for the new direction of the Newark Fire Department.

Part of the 1st Annual Irish Wake involved toasting a number of retirees. These were men with whom I worked with during my time one the job. Honoring them was my responsibility. The next part involved the celebration of a whole host of recent promotions to the rank of battalion chief (10 members). A dear friend of mine, Captain Bill Murnane was the comic relief for that part of the event. He led us for about 45 minutes of roasting and toasting the people who were being honored.

Truth be told, it has been a long time since I enjoyed a party like this one. I bumped into people I had not seen in years. My former Deputy Chief John Griggs and I shared a number of stories about battles we had won and lost. The banquet room was filled time and again with the smoke and debris of the fires we fought and re-fought. War stories were the order of the day. Somehow the fires seemed bigger and the heat hotter as we relived our careers for the entertainment of the younger members in attendance.

The final part of the equation involved introducing several members of the 36th Recruit Class of the Newark Fire Department. These young men were about to graduate from their training programs the day after the party and move out into the fire stations of Newark. The people running the wake wanted to bring these new people into the honorable equation that was, is, and will remain the Newark Fire Department.

It should be noted that I was a member of the first class that began the numbering tradition in 1973, as were my buddies Bill Murnane, Joe Ryan, and Mike Coale (all of whom were at the wake). As I stated earlier the mingling of old and new led to an exchange of stories which may have seemed to pay scant attention to the truth of the as it may someday be written.

It was really neat meeting the grandson of the man who was my initial acting captain when I went to Truck Company #11 as an auxiliary fireman in 1972. This young lad was about to join his three brothers as members of the department. Their grandfather Al Taylor and I attended a lot of jobs together working out of the old quarters of Engine Co. #11 and Truck Company #11 at the corner of Central Avenue and South 9th Street. Al shared many Bob and Harry Carter stories with his family. He was a really great guy.

Al has gone on to his reward now and our old firehouse is a vacant lot; however the spirit of the Newark Fire Department marches on. I believe that the spirit of the NFD received a real boost from the mixing of new and old at the party.

As I motored down the Garden State Parkway on my way home from the event with two of my retired battalion chief buddies, Bill Weber, and Joe Ryan, we chatted non-stop. We talked about what was, what is, and what might be.

Although we are all retired, we have never stopped loving the department and the men with whom we worked.

That emotion of love is one which must be passed along to the next generation. Being on the fire department is not just a job. It is a calling. Showing love is a task that requires demonstrating, not just telling. People learn best by watching examples of what should be done, rather than hearing lectures about what they should do.

Let me now offer some serious advice to the people who will be assuming control of the department after the new mayor's inauguration in July 1, 2006. First and foremost I would suggest that all parties come to an agreement which would bring all of the officers and firefighters of the department back together on the same shift schedule. Lead from the front on this issue.

How can any fire department ever expect to build a series of effective working teams if their organization persists in playing games with their working people by placing them on a different set of shifts with rotating supervisors? The stories from people I know, love and trust bear the need for this out in great detail.

Leadership is not a moveable feast.

It would also be my recommendation that the folks assuming command create an environment wherein they are seen to provide strong support for the people out there in the fire stations. They must be perceived as people who understand the tasks involved in doing the work of the fire department protecting the citizens of the city. This understanding must come to the fore. It is critical to lead from the front on this issue.

I would suggest that a vision for the future be created which people can understand and into which they can invest some serious mental capital. I would also suggest the creation of an organizational system which encourages thinking and rewards trying. Heck, create a joint task force of people from every part of the department to help you create this new vision.

It may never happen but it would be my hope that some effort is made to eliminate the spying and backbiting that has plagued the department for some time. Work to create a team, where every one can attain a by-in to the goals of the organization. Become one team.

It is also critical to become an encourager and promoter of the people who are doing the dirty and dangerous work of keeping the public safe. All wisdom does not come from the palace on high. All good things are not thought up by the people in headquarters. When it comes to suggestions, ask and you will receive. But once you receive, do something.

I would also urge the new leaders to learn from the past and begin to honor the valued traditions of the past. You must remember that the past is the solid rock upon which to build your bridges from the past through the present and out into the future. Remember that it is the people who went before us who kept this thing we call the Newark Fire Department alive for us to enjoy today.

The people who are now carrying the baton need your support. There will be no future if you drop the baton. Look for the strong traditions and celebrate them. Root out the bad traditions and prune them from the NFD tree of life. Create an organization where people are supported and honored for their efforts. Develop an organization where people are not afraid to try. Develop an organization where people are encouraged to try new and innovative ways of delivering your services.

Always be there for your people. Applaud them when they succeed. More importantly, should they fail, pick them up, dust them off and send them on their way ready to try again. I truly believe that you can create positive change in the Newark Fire Department.

These are just my two cents. Use them or ignore them. The call is yours. With the proper concern for the people of the department, I would suggest that change can once again become a positive word in the lexicon of every fire department in our great nation. Like always, it is your call.