Arete? In The Fire Service

Long before the Army popularized the slogan ?be all you can be,? the Greeks defined this concept with one simple word: aret? (pronounced ar-uh-tay).Long before the Army popularized the slogan "be all you can be," the Greeks defined this concept with one...


Long before the Army popularized the slogan ?be all you can be,? the Greeks defined this concept with one simple word: aret? (pronounced ar-uh-tay).Long before the Army popularized the slogan "be all you can be," the Greeks defined this concept with one simple word: aret? (pronounced ar-uh-tay). Some translate the word as "virtue," but the more precise definition means to reach your highest human potential. Aret? is akin to Dr. Abraham Maslow's description of self-actualization, when one achieves one's full personal potential. A man or woman of aret? is highly effective, using all of their knowledge, skills, abilities and power to accomplish great things, to make a real difference. For the Greeks, aret? was unmistakably coupled with knowledge.

While the Army may have embraced aret? for its soldiers, and the Greeks promoted aret? as the way of life, the majority of the fire service has yet to take up this concept. In the fire service, we teach fire fighters and fire officers to perform tasks and to follow orders. Using standard operating procedures and following orders is good and it belongs in the fire service. The results could be disastrous if a fire fighter decided to try a new method of throwing a ladder during a working fire, or a fire officer wanted to debate an order from the incident commander. Collectively, we in the fire service have done an excellent job of teaching fire fighters to follow orders, but we have not done a good job teaching fire fighters to think.

Socrates once said, "I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make him think." Many fire departments, however, lack this vision. In his book, 20,000 Alarms, Lt. Richard Hamilton tells a story about an FDNY fire officer who micromanaged his crews and discouraged individual thinking. The officer told one truck company to "go to the roof" of a multi-story building that was on fire. The crew went to the roof and waited for orders to vent. The order never came, and the fire mushroomed inside the building, going to multiple alarms. The chief investigating the fire attack questioned the crew as to why they did not ventilate when being told to "go to the roof." The officer replied that the crew was not ordered to vent. The chief asked if the crew needed an order for such an obvious task as venting when told to go to the roof, and the officer replied, "Chief, in this outfit, you need an order to go to the bathroom."

Thomas Stewart, the editor of Harvard Business Review, states in his book, The Wealth of Knowledge: Intellectual Capital and the 21st Century Organization that "knowledge is today's capital and the key to achieving competitive advantage." Fire chiefs and other fire service officers interact with professional business people every day. In a governmental organization, the fire chief interacts with the mayor or chief administrative officer, who most likely has a Master's Degree. The finance director, human resources director, and other department heads will most likely have at least a Bachelor's Degree. The Fire Marshal works with architects and engineers who possess advanced degrees. The fire service is no longer a blue-collar job; it is a profession. A fire department is a business division of a major corporation that competes with other business divisions for scare resources. College degrees provide fire officers with the knowledge and skills needed to compete and win in this environment.

It can be difficult to find college level courses tailored for the fire service. When I joined the fire service in 1977, I took fire courses at the vo-tech school. My friends on the police department took criminal justice courses at the local college. Many police departments require two years of college as a prerequisite for employment. Few fire departments have such a requirement. A non-scientific survey of the six law enforcement departments and seven fire departments in my county revealed that three police departments require some amount of college, ranging from 48 hours to an Associate's Degree for recruits, while none of the fire departments have such a requirement. A quick Internet search reveals that many colleges offer master's degree programs in criminal justice or law enforcement related studies, but there are only a handful of master's programs tailored for the fire service.

This content continues onto the next page...