Carter: Some More Tips for the New Fire Officer

Let me suggest that some of my greatest problems as a fire officer came about as a result of my own personal mistakes which were made worse by a poor reading of the actions and attitudes of the people around me.

  • Confidence in your abilities
  • Willingness to learn
  • Strength of character
  • Enthusiasm for the task at hand
  • The ability to speak, write and listen effectively
  • Knowledge of the fire protection field
  • A vision for yourself and your place in the world

The first on the list is critical. If you do not think you can do something, people will sense this ambivalence and you will fail. How would you like to follow an officer into battle who blows his whistle and yells, “Over the top, I guess.” And remember that leading by example works best.

You must always remain in search of knowledge. It is important to read books, attend seminars, conduct after-actions critiques and look for new facts wherever the opportunity presents itself. Your unwillingness to learn will manifest itself in a team that does not value knowledge. So in a negative way, the person who shuns knowledge also leads by example – bad example. Be proactive in your quest for knowledge.

Your entire reputation as a fire officer will rest on whether people sense in you a person with strong values. You must also display a dedication to those principles which guide your daily existence. Let me share with you those things which guided my personal and professional life for the past few decades.

  • Faith in God
  • Love of family
  • Loyalty to my men
  • Honesty
  • Determination to get a bit better every day
  • A sense of self-discipline, for how can you ask people to do something you cannot display yourself

If you can live by such things, your people will come to understand who you are. When they know that their trust and faith in you will always be repaid, they will literally go over the top with you.

One of my cardinal rules is to never ask a person to do something that I would not do myself or have not done in the past. People will trust you and work harder for you if they know that you do not speak with “forked-tongue.” So for me it is a strength of character which I believe lies at the root of who and what I am as a fire service leader.

Above all, be enthusiastic about what you do. Some of my favorite role models in the fire service could have given lessons to Tom Sawyer on how to get people to white-wash a picket fence. Just being in the presence of people like this made you want to do what they were doing. Oddly enough, these were also individuals who enjoyed being around people, and that showed too. It is tough to get psyched up over a dirty job. But if you can, so will your people. Enthusiasm is contagious, so catch some.

As to my skills as a communicator, well, I try. Many who have known me for years feel that I am an effective communicator, within all of the disciplines. They should talk to my wife. So many of my problems at home go back to my admission to being a poor listener. Let me assure you that there is always a corollary to being a poor listener. Chances are good that if you cannot listen and miss something, you will overlook the proper response. This leads to the old “you never tell me anything” scenario. Be warned. If you aren’t listening enough, then you might not be talking enough. These two problems go hand in hand.

Once you come to know yourself, you have to learn about your job. You must study fire protection, emergency medicine, hazard materials response, or burn prevention, OR whatever your discipline might be. How can you tell people what to do (or prevent them from doing the wrong thing) if you do not know what to do yourself? As one who has been in the business for over thirty years, I am here to tell you that you really do learn something new every day. But only if you are sharp enough to keep your eyes open. It took me a long time to learn this fact. Trust me, it is true.

Lastly you must develop a vision for yourself and your place in the world. For some people it might be very expansive. These are the people who are driven to ever-higher levels of achievement. For others, it is possible that the urge to scale the heights is not as great as yours. But these people can be just as successful in their own right. And they may well be a lot happier.