ATLANTA, Ga. -- Perhaps there's no one better to teach lessons about what it takes to become a leader in the fire service than United States Fire Administrator Kelvin Cochran -- the nation's top fire official. Cochran was appointed to the position by President Obama and took his place at the top in August.
Last week, Cochran shared the lessons he learned in his 28-year career with attendees at the 2009 Firehouse Central conference in Atlanta where he served as fire chief for about 18-months just prior to his federal appointment. The title of his session was "The Chief Officer of the Future." It was designed to provide aspiring fire officers with practical tips on how to advance their careers.
"Use me as an example," Cochran said. "You should believe it is possible for you to be the United States Fire Administrator, or the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or to be the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which all of you have the capacity to become."
Cochran said firefighters aspiring to become chief officers need to focus on their advancement from the moment they begin the first day of their career as a rookie in their first fire station.
"Success is where preparation meets opportunity," Cochran said. "That's success. We should be in a constant state of preparation, all the time, all the time, so when the opportunity presents itself, you've got it all going on. You don't have to go and try to build relationship with the community, to build relationships with politicians and build credibility with the people in the department. It's just already been built because you've been working on it all the time."
For Cochran, his ascension to the pinnacle of the fire service began with a dream as a five-year-old boy who wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up.
"When I was a kid, I told people I wanted to be a firefighter," said Cochran, who added he grew up in Shreveport, La., in a Baptist community as a poor kid living in a modest shotgun house. "Grownup people said that if you want your dreams to come true, you have to believe in, and have faith in God, go to school and get a good education, respect grown up people and treat other kids like you want to be treated." He said that's the way he was raised and he carried those values into the fire service.
While it might seem easy to follow Cochran's recipe for success, it's not as easy as it seems. He said success requires sustained personal integrity and character.
Cochran said that when he went through the vetting process to get top level national security clearance for his new job, the investigators at the federal level spent a long time on personal integrity.
"They wanted to evaluate my whole life," he said. "They wanted to know how I treated women. They wanted to know whether I showed favoritism to African Americans because I am African American. They wanted to know how I participated in organizations that were predominately white males and how they felt about me and how I related to white males. ...They dug deep, deep, deep, deep and talked to people that I had forgotten about years ago. They wanted to know how I related to people. Thank God that they didn't find anything that could have cost me my opportunity to serve." And, that's why Cochran said it's important to keep your record spotless and your integrity intact right from the start.
Firefighters who want to become chief officers also need to align their personal core values with those of the fire service and the department they serve and do so selflessly, putting the good of others ahead of personal gain, Cochran said.
"What are your motives for being in the fire service," Cochran questioned rhetorically. "When your motives are authentic, and it doesn't get much more authentic than; ‘I want to serve people and I want to help people, and I am willing to lay my life on the line to do it, it doesn't get much more pure than that. ...When your needs are authentic and your motives are authentic, it drives you to assess your conduct and behavior to conform to the values of your department."