Look Back Toward the Future

It is time for another tale from the days of yesteryear. I believe that we must look back to what we did in the old days, if we are to get our bearings for the future. I also believe that we must assess who and what we were at that time. Only then can we can truly assess how far we have come. These two items are basic toward creating a proper journey toward the future.

Too often we fail to assess our success and languish in the world of false truths. We think that we are worse than we really are. In its own way, this is just as bad as thinking that we are better than we really are. We must tie the past to the present before we can hope to tie the present to the future. All of what was, is and will be lies on the same time continuum.

Let me begin by stating that we in the American Service are a proud lot. We are willing to match our skills against the ravages of fire, literally at the drop of a hat (or the shrill beeping of a pager). We have provided the guts and dedication. In a great many cases this has engendered the good will that we seek to enjoy.

However, I must ask a critical question at this juncture. Have we gone for the thrills, chills, and excitement at the expense of substance and credibility? Have we allowed people who were just the best firefighters to climb into roles of leadership for which they lacked any reasonable qualifications? Sadly, I would suggest that this has been the case in far too many places.

Think about it. It really does make sense. Is it really exciting to build a budget and then battle to see it enacted? How many times have you heard someone on the fire department radio net state that they were on the scene reporting a working budget battle? I would say never. We tend to shunt our management and administrative people toward the organizational sidelines in favor of the guts and glory response people.

This tendency to go for the excitement and glory of the emergency response world, rather than the boring sameness of the administrative side of the house has placed us in an unenviable position. We have seen countless overzealous mayors, city managers, and town council people seize control of the fire department. Why have we witnessed such a rise in the use of civilian police and fire directors? We have seen this because of the ability of the politician to control, hire and fire civilians.

I know this for a fact. Many of my years in the Newark Fire Department were spent laboring in the relative obscurity of a wide range of staff assignments. It turned out that I was good at budgeting and paperwork. Those skills caused me to be yanked out of my field assignments as a company officer and battalion commander on many occasions. Each time this occurred at the behest of the politically appointed civilian head of the department.

Like many of you, I would rather have been rolling out of the front door of the fire station chasing columns of smoke off in the distance. Fortunately, I wised up to the meaning of my duties. I was able to use my administrative skills for the good of my friends and associates that were doing the firefighting.

Sadly, the support for my efforts was lacking. These big bosses would always opt to back the politicians. Money would be shifted to the priorities laid out by the politicos. I cannot tell you how many trees were planted in the city thanks to fire department funds that were turned back by the politicians appointed to head the fire department. No one will ever know how many fire trucks were never purchased, so that there would be plenty of police cars and garbage trucks.

Political priorities almost always differ from reality. Those policies and programs created in the minds of the brilliant people that we elect to govern us rarely seem to bear any resemblance to reality. Should my comments seem cynical to you, you are to be commended for you ability to catch my drift.

Since nothing is ever unique to a single place, I would suggest that this aversion to supporting the troops runs rampant across America. I am forced to lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of our chief fire executives. We need to change the way that we operate. It is the concept of business as usual that has caused us to march off the cliff of sanity into the valley of insanity.

There is a movement afoot that is working to change the direction of fire department leadership, administration, and management. Some of their ideas are quite radical, and I do not agree with them all. I would urge caution in the way that we revamp and reinvent ourselves. We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater in our search for a greater core of administrative skills. Like all movements of correction, those who would address this problem seem to have gone too far in the opposite direction.

I have read a number of articles about this problem and how it should be addressed. Let me suggest that there are those who teach and counsel that we must create a corps of executives to run our fire departments. These writers suggest that these fire executives really do not need any firefighting skills. Those mundane tasks can be delegated to slugs that are not bright enough to be executives.

Perhaps I overstate their argument, but I do it for a purpose. Our top leaders and administrators must be able to engender confidence among their agencies. If we do not do this correctly, it could turn out like one of my favorite scenes from the Clint Eastwood's 1986 Marine Corps movie, Heartbreak Ridge.

Perhaps you remember the scene near the end of the movie where the Recon Platoon has just attacked and captured the strong point at the top of the hill in Grenada. It seems that they attacked and overwhelmed this position in spite of the orders of their prissy battalion commander who had ordered them to wait for him to arrive before attacking.

I will never forget the gruff old Marine Colonel who, after listening to the battalion commander whine about his recon platoon for awhile, asked the Major if he was new to the infantry. When the man answered in the affirmative, the Colonel asked him what branch he came from. The man replied that he had just transferred into the infantry from supply. Were you good at it asked the Colonel? Yes was the reply. Then in no uncertain terms the Colonel relieved the Major and strongly suggested that he go back to the supply branch.

I want you all to be clear about this. Our leaders need to be experienced emergency service responders. They must understand the hardships that will be encountered by the fire and EMS responders within their agency. They must understand what it is like to operate in the chaotic, challenge-filled environment of field operations. However, they also need to be trained to operate in the confusing administrative environment wherein the budgetary battles are fought.

We have to stop sending our leaders to the administrative gun battles at town hall armed with knives. The best that I can do here is to write about this problem. Make no mistake about this. It is a serious, life-threatening problem for the fire service.

Far too many people have no clue about budgeting. They absolutely despise paperwork. The last thing they want to do on the face of this earth is to conduct meetings, ask for advice and create policy. My warning to you is simple indeed.

If we are to overcome our past mistakes, we must shine the bright spotlight of achievement upon the administrative side of our fire departments. We must devote educational resources toward developing better-qualified people to lead our agencies. We need to create research people, budget analysts, and qualified managers who know about what firefighting is and how it must be funded and shaped.

Sadly, those in charge of the federal resources so essential to this effort have become like Little Bo Peep. Not only have they lost their way, they are going baa, baa, baa, when it comes to funding the fire service. Unfortunately my friends, you and I are the sheep that are being lost and ignored by the Little Bo Peep people charged with funding fire related programs.

While my dear friends at Emmitsburg battle to keep the standards high and the much-needed specialized training available at our National Fire Academy, countless nameless and faceless government drones are laboring to strip the dollars away from our programs and ship them to homeland security-related issues. The funding needed to create trained, fire service leaders, managers, and administrators is being funneled to the world of guns, badges, and domestic spying.

Enough already with the terrorist threats. Enough with the homeland security issues my friends. Every day you and I rise out the door to protect our communities. We need the help that is being stripped away and sent to government contractors.

Remember my warnings to you all back in April. I urged a battle that many were unwilling to fight. I urged a politically unpalatable battle that was dismissed as improper, inappropriate, and impolite. As we once again face the reality of a federal government that cries big crocodile tears over the loss of life on 9-11-01, and then guts our fire programs, I urge action. The unwatched baby of our fire service future is about to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. All that I can do for you is to lay down my thoughts for you to read and ponder.

Let me revisit the words I used earlier in this message to you. Political priorities almost always differ from reality. Those policies and programs created in the minds of the brilliant people that we elect to govern us rarely seem to bear any resemblance to reality. That can be the only explanation for the rabid fixation of Washington, DC bureaucrats on terror and homeland security issues.

As I write these words, forces are hard at work to take the FIRE Act's funding and send it to the big pile of terrorism money in the sky. I do not know about you, but I for one have had enough. I intend to print out this commentary and send it to Senators Lautenberg and Corzine, and Congressman Chris Smith of District #4 in New Jersey. I want them to know that one man is sick and tired of the ceaseless droning about terrorists and homeland security.

This past week, one of my regular readers asked me what I thought could be done about the movement of the FIRE Act money to the Office of Domestic Preparedness, in the Department of Homeland Security? The answer is simple. You can do what I intend to do. Print out my words and send them to your senators and congressional representatives. I cannot send them to your representatives, because they do not represent me, however you can and must.

Departments in a wide variety of places are suffering their current state of confusion and dissention because of the things we did not do in the past. They can only be changed through your efforts. Not my efforts, your efforts. Like I have stated many times, I am a writer. Writers inform, educate and suggest.

The same thing holds true for the fire service as a whole. We will rise or fall on the efforts of the millions of you who can each do something. I am only asking you to do one thing. Print out copies of my commentary and send them to three people, your Member of the House of Representative and your U.S. Senators.

As is my way I am asking you to do what I am doing, nothing more or nothing less. Let the groundswell begin this week.