Active Interaction: The First Step to Fire Department Success

Dr. Harry Carter discusses why firefighters and company officers need to use active interaction to create a positive learning enviornment at the firehouse.

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.