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.
We chose to follow the legacy because it was shared with us by people we came to respect and admire. We became part of a culture which felt that doing our job in the same way and manner as those who went before was a good thing. We worked to share that culture with those who came up after us. I was in the thick of this effort owing to the great amount of time I spent in training. When I was the Commandant of Training for the Newark Fire Department, my staff and I worked hard to create an understanding of the reasons for the many tasks we trained the new troops to perform.
Since I traveled to all of the major fire service conventions, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the latest developed as they came upon the fire service scene. It was my good fortune to have a number of friends with whom I could discuss the latest trends and compare them to what we were doing in Newark. In this I was most fortunate that I was able to periodically take my bearings in order to steer the ship of state in the Newark training world.
Each of us must pause from time to time to test the limits and direction of our fire department's direction, focus, and legacy. People (and fire departments) can go off the deep end if they fail to assess whether their operational legacy is being properly maintained and nurtured. You must make a conscious effort to see if you and your fire department are on the right course to meet the needs and demands of this the 21st Century. You just cannot leave things to chance.
In ancient times navigators on the sailing ships of the time charted their course by taking their bearing with a device called a sextant. They used the stars to guide them in pursuit of their journey and it was the navigator's job to insure that the ship was headed in the right direction by performing a task known as shooting the stars. This type of navigation was used well into the 20th Century. It has been replaced by technology, but it stills takes the skill of a human to make the system work.
Let me suggest that you will need to assess the direction of your organizational ship of state by charting a course using the points of your moral compass. It is also critical to keep the welfare of your individual fire personnel in mind. It is critical that you avoiding doing what we in Newark used to call stupid stuff (other spelling used).
What then are the points of the moral compass which you must use to assess the direction and continued validity of your fire department's legacy? You must do this to insure that you do not go off course and lose your way while pursuing false idols. These points are:
- Good judgment
- Servant of the troops
It sure does seem like there are a lot of things which go into the making of your moral compass. However, let me suggest that all have a place in making you the best possible organizational navigator for your fire department. These are all of the internal aspects of your compass.
What then are the external things against which you will begin to shoot the stars in order to determine whether your department is actually on course? After a bit of soul searching, I have come to the conclusion that the following things need to be a part of your organizational navigation process:
- The professional literature (texts, magazines, and research papers and projects)
- An environmental scan of the world around your organization
- An environmental scan of the inside of your organization
- A review of major emergencies, incidents, accidents, mistakes, and other teaching moments from the outside world
- The local economy in your area
- Your state's economic conditions
- The national economic environment
- The opinion of people whom you trust
In doing this you need to chart a course of support and guidance for who have been entrusted to your care. You need to stand up for those things in which you believe and nurture and support your people. Above all, you must learn to lead from the front. No one likes a hider/slider type of leader. I look to the "Iron Mike" statute at the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga. The whole concept involves creating a "follow me" leadership style among the Queen of Battle.
It is my opinion that one of the keys to creating and preserving your fire department's legacy is to avoid jumping on all of the passing fads in the fire service. You need to become proficient in the tried and true methods of operating. Are you aware that at one point many years ago it was forecast that fires would be found in the future by trucks equipped with radio frequency wave which would interrupt the combustion process.
Let me assure you that I have followed this for many years and that those folks who have chosen to invest in the delivery of water to extinguish fires have done quite well indeed. As a matter of fact, those who have been able to generate support for residential fire sprinkler systems have done quite well indeed.
Be grateful for those individuals in the past who have chosen to grab the reins of leadership with both hands, yanked hard and exercised a proactive approach to command, control, and future planning. Oh, they were no always right, but let me assure you that they made far fewer mistakes than the shrinking violets who stayed on the sidelines and invested none of their individual capital in anything which involved any sort of risk.
As a friend of mine told me many years ago, "…do not follow where the path may lead. Chose instead a new path and leave a trail for others to follow." In line with this thought, I have developed a personal philosophy which has served me well over the past several decades. I read, research, think, and then write about that which I believe to be the best way to do a given task.
Am I always right? Heck no. However, let me suggest that I have proven to be more right than wrong over the course of my professional career. As I approach my first Social Security check in July, I want you to know that I have no plans to change how I operate. I intend to carry the baton of fire service leadership for as long as the Good Lord allows me breath to carry on. Take care.
- See Harry Live! Dr. Harry Carter will be presenting “Problem Solving” and “How to Become a Better Fire Chief” during the Chief's Leadership Forum at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore, July 23 - 27.