To Get Ready For The Future,You Must Learn From The Past

One of the primary forces at work in the fire service today is the movement toward embracing change. We are all being asked to reveal what it is about us that prejudices us in favor of the status quo, what it is that causes us to fight change.

This is an extremely serious matter. Unless we can change to meet the new imperatives of the future, we will be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. In many cases we have been boxed into some terrible positions by our defense of the past.

Before we can evolve organizationally, we must come to know who we are as individuals. By knowing ourselves, we can then begin to take the steps necessary to assume control of our own destiny. And when we are comfortable with our personal fortunes, we can move on to assess the future success of the organizations we populate.

I have spent a lot of years working in a wide range of fire service-related ventures. My background also includes a number of years spent working to institute improvements in a number of distinctly different environments, both military and fire service. All of these have afforded me the insight to postulate the following gems of wisdom:

Change can be convenient. Change can be commendable. Change can be good. Change can be bad. Change can be necessary. Change will occur, whether we want it or not.

Having said these things about change, let me now state that there are some things I hope will never change, for you see, their loss would diminish us, both as a society and as a fire service. In this Command Post, I will ask you to accept the six statements listed above. They are of such manifest simplicity that they are not really open to challenge.

However, it is the seventh statement, in the paragraph that followed, that I want to offer to you today. There are certain attributes, traits and beliefs which are so basic to our society that we refashion them at our own peril.

Each and every one of us is an average person. None among us is truly spectacular. However, each of us has stepped forward to do a dirty and dangerous job: firefighting. The reasons for our choice are not important, for the virtue of the very act itself speaks volumes about us as individuals.

Firefighting is one of those special pursuits which only a certain few can follow. I would like to compare us to those people at the Alamo who stepped over the line to join Colonel Travis back in 1836. We have stepped forward to accept the challenge of protecting our communities. We have announced to the world that we will protect our friends and neighbors from the ravages of fire.

I want to motivate each of you to become the very best firefighter or officer that you possibly can be. We want to assure you that you must be well trained and properly prepared. These attributes will become increasingly vital as we approach the new century. Times are tough, money is short and expectations for you are growing.

But what will the future really demand of you? Will it be some high-tech, Buck Rogers approach to doing business? Or will it be more of the same, just piled higher and wider? Now for a bit of theory. It is my assertion that every tomorrow you will ever face is just one day away from a really comfortable today. Research into the past indicates that time is one long continuum. It is my contention that there were no distinct breaks or artificial junctures, except for those added later by historians. You know, like the Dark Ages or the Renaissance.

Do you honestly think that people tramped through the streets of Europe grumbling about what a "bummer" it was to be stuck in the Dark Ages? Or perhaps you have thought that people in Italy danced in the streets, happy with the knowledge that they were living during the Renaissance? I don't think so.

These people got up every morning. They ambled off to work. They returned home, ate supper and went to bed. It was only at a later date, perhaps in a dusty college study hall or library where someone studied those olden times, when to put things in order they labeled those periods for the ease of historical research.

While our times are more complicated, the theory remains the same. We get up, we go to work and we do our job. Who knows what they will call us in the centuries to come? Because of this continuum-style approach to time, I want to introduce a slightly different approach to change and the management of change. I want to stress a new combination approach to managing change within your fire departments; one geared to challenging conventional change wisdom.

Let me assure you that many things will continue to change. This is a given and shame on you if you can't accept that. However, I am urging you to prepare yourself and your fire department for those changes. That is what being a change agent is all about. Accepting change and preparing for change go hand in hand.

I want you to get ready for what is coming, for to do so is critical to the success of your fire department. However, I want you to do it while maintaining contact with some good old-fashioned values. It is at this point where my ideas begin to diverge from the standard management song sheet.

Many of my thoughts and beliefs run counter to the traditional management theorists. It is my ardent belief that anything new you plan for your fire department will have little merit if you choose to ignore the basic human values that made America great. To succeed in the future we must have a firm grasp of the present. And we must never forget the greatness of the past.

Sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn't it? Heading off into the future with one foot firmly planted in the past; characteristic of some real muddled musings, to say the least.

Regardless of the approach you choose for running your fire department, it is my firm conviction that you must always remember those basic values which have helped to weave the fabric of our lives as Americans. These values are crucial to any way of doing things, even in those cases where a radical change is needed. No good idea, new or old can occur in a vacuum. Our societal beliefs and principles exercise a strong influence on whatever we choose to do.

No matter how much you want to change your organization to meet the time of chaos which lies right out ahead of us; there are some societal givens. These are things which you as firefighters, sworn to protect the public, can never forget.

Many of these values, traits and beliefs are really quite emotional in nature. Let's take a look at them:

  • Strength
  • Sacrifice
  • Duty
  • Dedication
  • Loyalty
  • Honor
  • Pride in an honorable task
  • A love of God

Never be ashamed to express any of these emotions. In many instances, these are the only things that can keep you going in a world driven by:

  • Planning
  • Organizing
  • Directing
  • Coordinating
  • Controlling
  • Managing by objectives
  • Missions, goals and objectives

This whole business of change is highly offensive to my traditional English heritage. I continue to believe in such archaic traditions as fair play, hard work and waiting your turn in line. We cannot, however, move inward to a world of our own. What I'm suggesting is a personal and organizational approach to the future which will allow for perpetuating the characteristics listed earlier:

  • Strength
  • Sacrifice
  • Duty
  • Dedication
  • Loyalty
  • Honor
  • Pride in an honorable task
  • A love of God

We have witnessed each of these at work, at one time or another. Whether it was the resolve to move an attack line into the third floor of a burning tenement or the decision to stop the fire at the corner, it took strength and resolve to get the job done. It might have been the fire chief who refused to cut his department in the face of pressure from the mayor. Or it could have been the union leader who sat down with the mayor in his community to work out a compromise to save firefighters' jobs.

And what greater demonstration of dedication and loyalty can we find than the firefighter who will not leave an injured buddy. We owe a duty, one to another. If ours is an organization that will succeed in the future, we must remain a team dedicated to one another.

This may seem like a lot to ask of the "Me Generation" or "Generation X" but ask it we must. Just as brave men suffered at Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Normandy and Hamburger Hill, so must we know that sacrifices are necessary for our team. If you are the leader, you must remain dedicated to your people. Labor on their behalf and work for their betterment. Set high standards for yourself, and your people will seek to emulate you.

Always remember that loyalty is a two-way street. You must give it to get it. We can recall a fire chief who asked his training officer to teach a course in loyalty. That officer replied to the fire chief that you could not teach loyalty, you had to earn it. Sadly, the chief had no idea of what his training guy really meant, until many years later.

New and different challenges are sure to be a part of our future. There will be many problems. But if you can create a common sense-oriented fire department, with some solid, old-time values and attributes, the problems will become opportunities. And your team will move boldly into the next millennium. If you are in a leadership position, it is critical for you to instill a love of responsibility in your people. And the best way is by example.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., will discuss "Solving Today's Fire Service Problems" at Firehouse Emergency Services Expo '98 in Baltimore July 15-19.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an acting deputy chief of the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and commander of the Training Division. He also is past chief of the Adelphia, NJ, Fire Company.