Position Your Fire Department for Success

My friends, it has been my good fortune to have been an active member of the fire service for a long time now. I have seen a lot and done a great deal. One thing is for sure, there will always be a future. And that future will happen whether you are ready for it or not. It is, therefore, critical to develop and maintain an effective fire department organization capable of riding that roller-coaster we call change.

This will not be an easy task during the coming decade of change, as we work through the second decade of the 21st Century.  The pressures have been great and the temptations falter many. But there has never been an alternative to success. You must soldier on if there is to be a viable fire service in the future.

A successful fire department is one which meets the needs of its community, both actual and perceived.  But you would be surprised at how many fire departments fail to satisfy their primary customer – the taxpayer. It is the taxpayer who foots the bill for the lavish equipment and property we get to use.

I may be preaching to the choir (and I might not), but we in the fire service must work to evolve into a customer-oriented agency, with quality service as a priority.  In order to do this, your fire department must become responsive to the community, seeking input and support to guide departmental decision makers.

Let us turn our attention to that place where we spend the bulk of our time: the fire department itself. There are a number of ways in which fire people continually foul up their co-workers and their departments.  We must understand these mistakes and overcome them by diligent effort and an honest concern for people as individuals.

  1. Failing to accept responsibility
  2. Failing to properly develop people
  3. Trying to control results, rather than simulating thinking
  4. Being a buddy rather than a fire officer
  5. Failing to set standards (a long car trip with no map)
  6. Failing to train people to do their job
  7. Tolerating incompetence

Who would be so stupid as to make mistakes like these you might ask? Common sense would tell us that…and then the argument starts to trail off.  There is nothing common about common sense. One of the most overrated and least available traits in the world today is common sense.  Those things I have listed above were mistakes a thousand years ago.  They were mistakes during World War II.  And they remain critical mistakes today.  And since today is only one step away from that tomorrow we were just talking about, we had best start working to overcome these critical errors right now.

Think of the changes you and I have witnessed over the last forty years.  Reflect on those devices that we now use that were not available to the fire service at the turn-of-the-century.  Think about how things have changed.

Now we can:

  • Use social media to tell our story (ours and the department’s)
  • Scan a document and email it as a file attachment
  • Receive a pre-fire plan through a mobile computer in your command vehicle (or in your first due pumper)
  • Store our information in a cloud
  • You can conduct incident command over your I-Phone
  • Do word processing and date searches on the fire ground, at a motor vehicle accident, at a haz-mat incident (or any just about where)
  • Send and receive electronic mail (on computers, phones, tablets)
  • Use cellular phones to manage our world
  • Use on-line training programs to stretch your precious instructional time

But there is one critical element which has not changed.  As we said last month, when Harry Truman was President, he had a saying on his desk that said, the buck stops here.”  Each of us has to make a similar decision that the buck of responsibility for a better fire department stops at our desk.

It is critical to our success as leaders in the fire service that we take the blame for our actions.  We must demand the same of the people we work with.  A major problem in America today is the failure to hold people responsible for their actions.  Whether it is the murderer who had a sad childhood, or the rapist who hated his mother; we keep looking for excuses.

What can we expect to encounter as we move through the 1990’s?  I really don’t know what to tell you.  We like to leave that star gazing stuff to Ron Coleman from Fullerton, California.  He must have a contact with the beyond for some of the fine futuristic thinking he has given us.  But what we are saying is that regardless of what new advances come on the scene, we will still be responsible as individuals for our own actions.  If you are in a leadership position, it is critical for you to instill a love of responsibility in your people.  And the best way is still by example.  Remember that another part of responsibility is loyalty.  Show it, live it, earn it and you will come to receive it.

The fire service has been skating along for a long time on its reputation as public-spirited community service people.  Denis Waitley, the management writer, once summed up a great deal of what I know about the fire service best when he said, “… the mind can’t tell the difference between an actual experience and an imaginary experience that is repeated vividly.”

Or as we are frequently heard to say in my fire department, some fire officers are truly a legend in their own mind. Seek feedback, and need advice.  If left to our own devices, we would say that the world is too thin.  However, the truth is that we are far too short for our weight.

As we approach the year 2020 and our budgets continue to climb, people are going to take a closer look at just who we are and what we do.  To exist in an environment of this kind, we need to develop people who are professionally competent and trained to do their work in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

It will take a conscious effort on your part to develop people like this.  And it is this development which is a critical component of the change equation.

How will we do it you might ask?  We will do it with

  • Hard work
  • Studying
  • Getting promoted
  • Remembering where you came from!

To succeed as a fire service leader in the 21st Century, you will have to have a good, clear picture of where you are headed.  More importantly, you will have to possess the ability to instill this picture into the heads of those you lead.  Do it and you will succeed; fail to do it and you will fail.  It’s that simple!

As I have often written, patience is virtue!  Let me leave you with a simple thought on just how I believe you should approach change in the fire service.

Lord, grant me the ability to change those things that I can change, the serenity to live with those that I cannot change and the wisdom to know the difference.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com 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 drharrycarter@optonline.net.