Fire Officers: I Once Was Lost but Now Am Found

The fire department is not just about one person. If you fail to create an environment wherein people can succeed, you will fail.

In my early days as a captain the Newark Fire Department, I encountered a number of these old-school style folks. I don't want to call them leaders because they did not lead. Much like the people who herded cattle in the Old West, these people took great pains to drive their people in the direction which they had decided was corrected. They neither sought nor accepted suggestions or advice from their team.

How do I know this you might ask? I know this because I worked for just such a Captain. My bother and I were both on the same engine company during this period of time. He and I were subjected to the same 'I am the boss' style of supervision. I say supervisions because I never really saw this guy as a leader. Let me suggest that I can recall commenting that if I did everything the exact opposite of this fellow's style, I could not help but succeed as a company commander. Guess what? I was right.

I offer my hard-earned experiences to you as a gift, a gift which I learned only by experiencing one embarrassing lesson after another, year after year of my career as a leader in the fire service. Perhaps the most important lesson finally came to me one day in church. After all, that is where some of my greatest thoughts have come to pass.

Following a particularly brilliant, insightful and expansive sermon on how to act in positions of both leadership and followership, the guts of my life philosophy came together. It wasn't brilliant, but it was life-changing for me. I could not wait to share it with the man who motivated me to create this new and engaging philosophy of life.

As I was leaving church that morning, I waited in line to shake hands with my Pastor and thank him for his guidance and motivation. I thanked him and told him that he had caused me to make a life-changing determination on just how I should act here on 'God's Green Earth'. I guess he was expected much more than I had to offer.

He asked me the nature of my newly created personal philosophy. My answer was as plain and simple as I could make it. I laid out my philosophy as simply as possible. "Don't be a jerk." Scott stepped back for a moment, paused to ponder my comments and then stepped forward to shake my hand a bit harder. He then told me that my choice of words was not quite what he would have used. However, he thanked me for forming the gist of his comments into a philosophy which could be used here in life. Let me offer these words of advice to you for your use in the fire service. I promise they will word if you remember them and actually choose to use them.

Remember, "…Don't be a jerk…" I know that I work hard to operate according to my personal theory of life. Take care and stay safe.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. He is chairman of the Board of Commissioners in Howell Township Fire District 2 and retired from the Newark Fire Department as a battalion commander. Dr. Carter has been a member of the Adelphia Fire Company since 1971, serving as chief in 1991. He is a life member and past president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and life member of the National Fire Protection Association. He is president of the United States of America Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) of Great Britain. Dr. Carter holds a Ph.D. in organization and management from Capella University in Minneapolis, MN.