Kindling the Spark

As you might imagine, I never really know where a new thought will come from. There was a time many years ago when, as I sat in my favorite, comfortable easy chair watching yet another night of boring television, it suddenly it came to me. I need to stop watching the mindless tripe available on network televisions for a while. It came to me that I was in danger of destroying my thought processes.

 As I recall, the first step in this new approach to life involved turning the TV off. Oh did that one hurt. Once that was completed, I stood up, paced out to the kitchen and brewed a fresh pot of coffee. A short time later I returned to my favorite chair with a magazine and a book. The magazine was the latest edition of The New Jersey Freemason.   The book was Stephen R. Covey’s fabulous The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
I guess you could say that these two literary documents were as far away from modern television as a body can get. The combination of these two divergent pieces of literary work led to a very late night for me. Let me assure you that I suddenly was overtaken with the inspiration to attack a number of problems facing me in different parts of my life.
The message from our Grand Master of Masons in New Jersey seemed fairly simple at first. He began by quoting that email message of today’s generation of young people that many of us have seen on more than one occasion. It is the one that tells us about how many of the things that we over the age of forty take for granted as gospel. 
You know the one that states in part, “… (T)hey have never feared a nuclear war. Most have never seen a … black and white TV.” And on it goes. Our Grandmaster was making a real point. It is truly amazing how you can read something many times, and not get the point until, “WHAM", it comes to you in a blinding flash. Younger people are different from us old duffers. 
If this then is the case, how can we expect them to join with us in any endeavor, unless we can discover what they are all about? While our Grandmaster was addressing his remarks to the Brotherhood of Free Masons in New Jersey, I felt that he was saying things that crossed the borders of every organization I can imagine. And really folks, is there a more ritualistic, or traditional group than Freemasonry. Many of the things we do as Masons have passed intact from the days predating the founders of our great nation. Seeing the head of our group to speak on the topic of change was an inspiring thing for me to read.
Once we find ourselves able to understand the motivational factors which guide people of a certain age, we must willingly seek them out and let them share in what we do. It is critical to approach them in a way that is amenable to them. Since I do not twitter or tweet, I would need to search out a friend or relative who is comfortable within the new electronic reality.
We have to learn about young people and the ways that they live their lives. My research into this tells me that our younger generations learn differently and work differently than us older folks. In addition, it has long been my experience that no one likes to join a group where they will be abused, belittled, brow beaten, and trivialized. No one likes to be told to do things just BECAUSE! No one likes to be made to feel foolish every time they ask a question.
Unfortunately, this is what is happening all across the spectrum. Many of us have been in the organizations to which we belong for so many years that we automatically fall victim to the “we’ve always done it that way” syndrome. The sad thing is that far too many do not even notice the phenomenon at work. 
Anyone who enters such a group as a new member and begins to challenge the norm of that group, in any way, is made to feel foolish. People tend to want people around them that mirror their view of themselves and their world. Those not fitting in are driven away. The Lord only knows how many times I have witnessed this.
Perhaps I have even been like this myself. It is a human trait to want things to remain as they are, even though such thinking is a fool’s mission. 
In our Grandmaster's commentary he urged Masons throughout New Jersey to embrace the younger generation. He was attempting to portray to the brethren the true nature of those who are turning 21 this, and whom we are seeking to bring into the fraternity. He urged us to seek these people out. But more than that, he urged us to share the reins of power with them. He knows how hard it is to do this, and as a result asks us to make an extra effort in that direction.
Perhaps, my dear readers, he has hit at the heart of our problems in the fire service as well. It has been my observation that the leadership in far too many organizations has hung on to the reins of power well past their prime. By clinging to what they perceive to be the proper way to run the fire service, these people may well be creating an organizational environment that has nothing to do with today’s young people. It is not relevant and therefore becomes an anachronism. This is the living version of dinosaurs laying dinosaur eggs which will begat future problems.
By now you may be wondering where Stephen Covey’s book fits into this discussion. Quite simply there were two points that he made early on in his writing which seem really critical to me. In the early part of his text, he pounded home the need for each of us to become proactive in our view of the world. He spoke to the fact that if we do not take control of our lives, we possess no right to complain when others begin to call the shots for us. 
It is my belief that this is a critical thought that compliments those above in the paragraphs I have just written. If change is to occur in the fire service, someone has to step up to the plate and cause it to occur. That is how I have lived my life and you cannot imagine how many times it has gotten me into trouble with the powers that be. Change involves risk and risk scares a lot of people.
The problem was quite simple in every case I faced during my years in the Newark Fire Department. I was becoming a voice and a force for change. The people whom I was challenging did not want change. The result in almost every case involved arguments, recriminations, and periodic punishment. 
Oh, I was never put on charges or anything like that, because I always took pains to stay within the regulations. However, my career was stifled, I was shunted into dead-end positions, and my assignments were occasionally jumbled. I guess that you could say that I was paying the usual price for being proactive. Let me assure you that I always lived to fight another day. This should serve as an important motivator for those of you who may be afraid to buck the system.
I can recall the time when I was returning from a meeting at the National Fire Academy and passed a particular construction equipment distributor located next to the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Eastern Pennsylvania. Through the years I came to enjoy passing by their facility, because they have a signboard out front with motivational sayings. On this particular day they had a particularly insightful statement. It read, “… The only way to manage change is to create it…”
This short quotation leads me directly into my next thought from the Stephen Covey text. He stated that, “… (T)he proactive approach to change is from the inside – out; to be different, and by being different, to effect positive change in what’s out there.” Very simply he is telling us that we can effect change as individuals.
Having said this, I must also point out that being a proponent for change is not a job for the faint of heart. You must be willing to have the strength of your convictions. You must be able to challenge whatever the existing wisdom is. And you had best be able to provide sound reasoning for what you are attempting to accomplish.
We in the fire service have been waiting for someone to solve all of our problems. It would seem as thought we have been seeking a mystical White Knight, riding astride their noble warrior steed. It is this magical person who will, we dearly believe, ride into our town and save us from ourselves. What a load of manure. 
The answers to all of our problems must come from within. If we are in need of members, we need to ask ourselves why we constantly need to search for new ones, when we have a terrible track record of running off the old ones.  Time is at a premium in today’s high-speed, low-drag world. In a world populated with people who constantly ask the question, “… What’s in it for me, “: we must develop an answer. 
Quite simply, we must change, or we will go the way of the Dodo bird. We will become a fond memory and little more. I know that my Brother Masons and I are well aware of this particular problem. Heck, when I entered my lodge at the age of 50 years, I was considered to be young blood. But the members of my lodge quickly embraced me, and allowed me to assume a position of junior leadership. They have then allowed me to grow in responsibility, as I have come to know more about our fraternity. I have gained great strength and resolve from my interaction with the brethren.  
We in the fire service are continuing to experience recruiting problems. That is a well-known fact. But we have one thing going for us that gives us a leg up in the recruiting world. We can ask people to join our fire departments. Maybe we don’t, but we sure can. 
Let me share a little wisdom with you. I cannot ask you to become a Mason. That is a cardinal rule within the Brotherhood. You must want to become a Mason. Then you ask and we work hard to share our fraternity with you. I have created an ongoing awareness within a number of friends as to the positive aspects of the Masonic world. I have shared what being as Mason has meant to me, and the values that it allows me to live within. Some have embarked on the journey with me, and others have not.
We need to learn what our younger generation wants out of life. We need to make such adaptations as are necessary to insure that we survive and prosper. What good is it to maintain a purity of spirit within a dying organization? If we need to modify our organization to meet the needs of a changing community, then by all means, let’s do it.
When people ask us what’s in it for them, we must have an answer that makes sense to someone who cannot tell you where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. When we ask someone to do something, we must be able to give that person a logical, fact-based, authoritative answer that is appropriate for the real world of today. 
It is my opinion that there are people out there who want to join the fire service. But these are people who put a premium on their free time. We do not need to subject them to meaningless rituals that have no bearing on the delivery of fire protection services. These are people with a certain innate intelligence who will not stand for being abused and treated like crap by minor dictators.
The day of the Dictatorial Fire Chief is long gone (or should be). Do not get me wrong. Someone will always have to be in charge. But the most successful leaders have always built their power on the strength of those they are allowed to lead. If we can find that spark of dedication out there in our communities, it is up to us to fan it to a high level of enthusiasm. If we can do this, we will prosper. But if we continue to operate wet-blanket fire departments, we will die.
The decision is yours to make. I have been around for a long time. I am attempting to recruit and train my replacement. I will do what I can, but I am just one person. Each of you has to decide to embrace change.