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Active Interaction: The First Step to Fire Department Success

As of this week, it has been my privilege to serve in the fire and emergency world now for 50 years. From my first ride on an ambulance in Freehold, N.J. back in 1964 to my latest trip out of the front door with the Adelphia Fire Company last night, I have had what I believe to be one heck of a journey. From my basic fire training recruit courses (all four) to the heights of my doctoral career, education and training have been an integral part of all which I have accomplished.

So that's it my friends. I now am privileged to know all that there is to know. There is no more for me to learn. I have climbed to the heights of Mount Knowledge and intend to set up my camp chair and look out over the grand vistas of my existing knowledge, with no further need to crack a book, go to a class, or attend a seminar. WRONG! My friends, it is my hope that the day never arrives when I am stupid enough to believe such absolute foolishness.

Let me share a few thoughts with you about the importance of learning to live here in the world of the 21st Century in general. I say this for a reason. As I move through my seventh decade of life I now understand what a man told me long ago. Life is a journey and on any journey you will need the guidance of a map. Let me assure you that it is knowledge which serves as that map for us each of us as we move through life. No matter what we do we must gain and share knowledge in order to pursue success in our chosen fields. It is this interaction, this sharing of thoughts and knowledge, which serves to build the boundaries of our lives, as well as allow us to move on toward the future in an orderly and productive manner.

So it is with each member of your fire department. Although all of us shares a part of the common burdens of our fire departments, and each of us is different, one from the other. As we work through the magic of the active interaction with one another to which I make reference, we must understand that every person is different. We have grown to adulthood ion different ways and have accumulated differing amounts of education and experience. While we all must act in common ways for the common good of our departments, each of us arrived on the doorstep of our department via a different route.

Think about it. Some people are the product of a standard nuclear family, one with a mother, a father and possibly a sibling or two. This situation created a family environment wherein we matured and grew. Would you think that someone growing up in a single parent household would share your experiences? What about those who came through the foster child system or were orphaned at an early age and raised by other relatives, or "the system," whatever that might be? I agree with the sociologists who speak to the differences between these many groups. Each of us is a unique product of the environment wherein we grew up.

Let us take a look at this from another direction. I grew up in a somewhat rural farming area back in the 1950's and 1960's. Were my experiences different from those who grew to adulthood in a suburban environment? How about in a city? Once again the sociologists and I are in agreement. Having worked in the Newark Fire Department with guys who grew up in the city, I would tend to agree with the experts. Our individual experiences were different and our approach to life was not always the same. But somehow we managed to come together successfully as we all labored in the vineyards of the Newark Fire Department. The same has held true over my 40-plus years as a member of the Adelphia Fire Company here in Howell Township, N.J.

It is my opinion that we must come together in what I have chosen to label a process of "active interaction." Each of us must learn to actively listen to the words of those around us. We must then actively share our thoughts and experiences with our fellow travelers. Let me strongly suggest that it is critical for each of us to weigh the worth of the thoughts of others which we hear. We need to not just listen, but actually hear the guts of the discussions of their experiences in order to be able to mine for the gold of their personal wisdom.

Let me also suggest that it is much more important to listen than to talk. I guess that is strange advice, coming from me. As a teacher and public speaker, it is my job to use words to move knowledge. However, that is not the totality of what I do. If I am to provide the correct knowledge for my students, it is critical for me to listen to them. If I am to assess whether I have gotten my message across, I must ask questions and then actively listen to the responses of others. None the less, I would urge you to pursue a course of active listening in your life.

In my other life as a municipal fire protection consultant, my success depends upon my ability to question my clients and actively listen to their responses. I do this so that I am better able to provide them with the proper knowledge for their individual situations. My best work on behalf of my clients has come about as a result of my ability to stimulate this process which I have identified as "active interaction."

Let me now move this discussion to the world of leadership. Like you I have been both of the equation as both a follower and a leader. My associates and I were on a journey through the world of fire protection. In some situations I followed, while in others I led. But the key thing to remember is that in every situation I had to take orders from someone and the give them to others. Everyone was moving along the same path, it is just that we each had a varying role in the process. Everyone had to take orders. Some had to give them.

My journey with the Newark Fire Department ended in June of 1999. I like to think that my trip was successful. No one in any of my personal work groups died on my watch. That would be Engine 11, Engine 15, Engine 18, Engine 26, Truck 7, Truck 12 or Battalion District 5, Tour 3 or Battalion District 1, Tour 3; as well as the Training Division. I am immensely proud of that fact. We worked and trained together. We learned how to work as a team. That is not to say no one died on the fire department.

As one who served as the department's voice of command for all line-of-duty deaths (and many off-duty) from 1984 until I retired, it was my sad duty to bid farewell to those whose journey with the department has ended suddenly and tragically. Looking back I see this as a part of my role in the journey.

Unfortunately, there are too many among us who care only for themselves. I have taken to calling these folks the "what's in it for me warriors". All of the streets along which these selfish folks travel are of the variety which have signs that carry an arrow and are emblazoned with the words "one way." I really feel bad for people like this because they are missing out on one of the great joys in life. Giving to others. Being there for others. Being a real human being.

Life needs to be a blend of ideas my friends. I have but one brain and can only think one set of thoughts. Through the process of "active interaction" I am seeking to create an understanding among the fire service of the concept of synergy. This is an interesting concept in that it suggests that the interaction of people within which their ideas and actions are combined can produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual parts. I have seen this at work many times during my career.

As a matter of fact synergism serves as the basis for the success of my consulting practice. My associates and I gather the thoughts of the clients and blend them with our own. The result is normally a series of recommendations which are much better received than those which might have been created within the vacuum of single person's mind. Because everyone has contributed, I am better able to secure a buy-in among the client organizations' members.

I want to urge you to begin your use of the concept of "active interaction." Interaction with and between those with whom you work is critical. Ask questions and listen actively for a response. Use your ears more than your lips. Invite other people to share what they know with you. Listen and evaluate what they offer. You should then share what you have learned with others. Endeavor to make the whole of the group's work product group greater than the sum of its individual parts. You will discover that more can be accomplished by your group in this way and that your fire department will become more successful in delivering service to your community.

Many of the finest moments along the way on my journey through life have come from the sharing of thoughts, gifts, special moments, and mere human contact with others. These are some of life's greatest rewards. I would sure hate to come to the end of my time here on the Lord's Good Green Earth and look back at a journey which did not have the joyful moments of human interaction. So too should it be for you.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Follow Harry on his "A View From my Front Porch" blog. You can reach Harry by e-mail at