Is Your Legacy Worth Living?

In this commentary I want to challenge you to do a reality check on your fire department's legacy. Is it a good one?


Let me suggest that it is my intention this time around to get you to do a little bit of deep thinking. Let me begin by sharing a thought often heard in my world. This thought suggests that each of us is standing upon the shoulders of those who went before us in this world. In the case of our fire departments, each of them exists because of the work performed by countless scores of members over the life of your organization. You are where you are today because of those who stepped up to the plate and addressed the challenges of their time.

These are the folks who charted the course way back in the day. These are the folks whose efforts must have been meritorious, because in most cases we are still doing business at the same local address. The Adelphia Fire Company is still operating from the same location created by its founders back in the 1920's. Even though we opened a substation back in 2008, our primary focus remains in beautiful downtown Adelphia.

In this commentary I want to challenge you to do a reality check on your fire department's legacy. Is it a good one? Does it have solid traditions based in service to the community? Is it worth following? Or have succeeding generations bent the rules and caused the direction of your department to go off track. Have individuals corrupted the system and made your department into a personal club rather than a community-oriented service organization. 

This is a difficult task for you to undertake. Anytime someone chooses to challenge the prevailing wisdom and mores of an organization, they run the risk of running headlong into the folks I have come to call the "we've-always-done-it-that-way warriors." All traditions are sacred and none can be challenged. Years ago I can recall a number of folks telling me to take a hike when I challenged the sacred notions of their fire department. Being a consultant, this was one of the critical tasks for which I was hired. 

As a former track team member from my days in both high school and college, I am familiar with the events known as relay races. This would be the sort of race where each team has to carry the baton for a given distance. The baton is passed from racer to racer until the final team member crosses the finish line. It is sort of like that in the real world. 

Each generation is charged with carrying their team's baton for a given period. When their time is up they pass it to the next generation. I guess I am feeling a bit nostalgic, for you see June 1 is an important date for me. It was on this date in 1999 that I passed into the history of the Newark, NJ, Fire Department when I retired as a chief in the first battalion district. I spent more than 25 years carrying the baton. I had seen the generations come and go.

The folks who broke my brother and I in back in the early 1970's were products of World War II and the Korean War. They had been trained and nurtured by people who had served in World War I. My buddies and I who were at the top of the entrance list were all Vietnam War veterans. Let me suggest that it was easier for those of us who had been in the military to fall into the routine of the fire department. We were used to taking and following orders. That was what made the transition so much easier for my generation.

As I look back at the legacy which I was called follow, I saw dedicated people who took great pride in doing the best possible job. The Newark Fire Department of my youth took great pride in being an aggressive, interior structural firefighting agency. Given the tightly packed, wood-frame dwellings in many parts of the city, the need to move in quickly and aggressively was necessitated by the fact that if you didn't get in an hit the fire, it would grow and spread down the block. 

My buddies and I in the first class to graduate out of the new Newark Fire Training in 1973 were taught how to carry on the traditions of those who had been battling big city blazes since before World War II. The veteran troops set the example and it was upon to us young pups to learn the right way of doing business so that we could mature, move up in rank, and eventually take the place of our mentors.

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