Carter: Some Tips for the New Fire Officer

As I was sitting out on my front porch the other day, I made a particularly average, not-at-all startling discovery. I have been in the fire and emergency service world for nearly 50 years. And my writing for the fire and emergency service community has gone on for more than 38 years now. After a bit of reflection, I decided that the time has come for sharing my personal guidance to the newly promoted officer. I have been one and I have seen a lot of other take the plunge.

My trip across the bridge from firefighter to fire officer occurred back in 1977. At that time one of the dignitaries made a statement that his years as a fire captain were the happiest of his career. As a newly promoted captain, I could not grasp the meaning of his statement. After 13 years as a captain, and an additional five as a battalion chief, I understand. Life has a way of teaching lessons like that.

What he meant was that the satisfactions and rewards for performance and success (or failure) are practically instantaneous, as were the periodic kicks in the butt. As a newly promoted officer, you must quickly come to the realization that other people’s lives depend on your skill and knowledge.

You must learn to place the needs of your people ahead of your own. And trust me when I tell you that this is a particularly difficult behavior for each and everyone of us to learn. One of my models for leadership success has long been my late father, Colonel Harry B. Carter. To this day I attempt to live up to the guidance which he offered to me on that day back in 1977 when I became a captain. In written form on the back of the congratulatory card he and Mom gave to me after my promotional ceremony was his personal philosophy for leadership success.

He stated quite simply that as a fire officer, you must think of leading people in firefighting in the same terms that he had learned as a leader of men in the military. He suggested that it would be wise to think of myself as though I were a 2nd Lieutenant leading a platoon on a combat patrol on a wet and cold night.

When the patrol returned from their cold and tiring mission, it would be prudent for me to see that each man got a warm blanket and a hot cup of coffee before I got mine. Dad’s way was to always take care of his people. But he also stressed the importance of discipline and teamwork. As a young National Guard lieutenant, I came to know many of my father’s contemporaries. Almost to a man they expressed two thoughts about Dad.

  1. When you were with Harry Carter, you knew that you were in the presence of a real soldier
  2. The Colonel always took care of his people

After his death in 1988, I began to have questions about how he acquired his leadership style. As with most people, my questions arrived far too late for me to get a tangible answer, Coincidentally, I developed a strong interest in my father’s World War II service, and the actions of his unit, the 88th Infantry Division.

More than a half dozen books have been written about the “Draftee Division.” The 88th Infantry Division was the first unit to enter combat that had a draftee population under the leadership of a Regular Army cadre. One of the books that I read, Combat Soldier, was written by James Fry, who had been the commander of the infantry regiment in which Dad served.

My journey through that book told me volumes about where my father started to develop his leadership style. Colonel Fry always led from the front. He worked to limit the number of causalities in his regiment. He fought for the necessary creature comforts whenever possible. He also mourned the loss of men which any endeavor like war requires. James Fry later went on to serve in the Korean War and retired as a Major General. I believe that his action had an impact upon my father.

Just what did I see in the pages of that book? There was the picture of a leader who shared the hardships with his people. He ate the exact same meals as they did, so that he would understand how they felt, as well as what their energy level might be. And he ducked away from the same bullets that were being shot at his men.

Having read that book, I can now imagine the example that led my father to the analogy of the warm blanket and a hot cup of coffee. It was apparent to me that Dad saw the success of a combat infantry leader who lived by that motto through some of the worst fighting in the Italian Campaign.

And so it has been for me. On those occasions when I forgot about the men who worked for me, they took great pains to remind me of my failing. Let me assure you that it takes quite a period of time to regain their trust and get them back on your team.

The message here is really quite simple. Let me suggest that my experience has taught me that if you take care of your people they will surely take care of you. Create an environment wherein much is expected. But also give much in return. When your troops know that you will go to the wall for them, they will move mountains for you.

So, if you are a new officer, it is critical for you to learn to submerge your own ego for the good of the people you will lead. Remember, it still takes the whole crew to stretch a 1-3/4-inch attack line to the basement of a blazing building.