As Firehouse Sees It: Carry On Harry's Legacy

July 18, 2022
Peter Matthews' personal experiences with longtime Firehouse columnist Dr. Harry R. Carter add to the wisdom that the latter provided through his years of writing and speaking.

Within four months, we mourned the loss of our founder, Dennis Smith, and longtime contributor James P. Smith, and last month, “Command Post” columnist Dr. Harry R. Carter passed away. Jim and Harry had cancer.

In my time here, I probably worked most closely with Harry, because he was heavily involved in Firehouse’s print, digital and events portfolio. Harry was a dear friend and an encouraging mentor, and he often caused me to pause, to reflect, to dig more into whatever topic that it was that we discussed. Phone calls could go on for hours, and that was before $200 AirPods. Sometimes, my shoulder hurt from keeping the phone to my ear for the entire call, but the wisdom that I gathered from Harry was priceless.

I always admired his dedication to the volunteer fire service, and that reached far beyond Adelphia and Howell Township in New Jersey. When he and his best friend, Jack Peltier, took the 2006 Fire Act road trip to share stories about the effect of the federal funding, they opened the eyes of countless people to the need for more funding in fire departments, large and small.

The most memorable lesson that he taught me came from a lengthy phone conversation that we had after he submitted an article that focused on the importance of listening when engaged in conversation. He told me that too many conversations go awry when one person is more focused on responding to the first few words of the other’s statement, so that the listener misses the key point and often replies out of context.

He said that he first noticed this communication challenge during heated debates at firehouse kitchen tables; he later noticed it while teaching and consulting. People wanted to be heard so badly that they didn’t listen. He termed this a lack of active listening, and, in the July 2000 (, he outlined these points for being an effective active listener:

  • Always look at the person to whom you are listening
  • Concentrate on the ideas being proposed to you
  • Avoid framing your response to the speaker while he or she still is talking
  • Listen to what you are saying
  • Don’t speak until the other person stops talking

I know that active listening still is something that is a struggle of mine, and, as many of us shift our communications to electronic messaging, this lesson is a great refresher for anyone who’s engaged in face-to-face conversations.

Here are two lessons from Harry we all can benefit from:

1. In 2010, Harry urged leaders to understand their working environment far beyond the fire department, writing, “The manner in which fire departments operate has developed as a result of a variety of influences. It is an arena where there has never been a distinct break with the past. This has stymied many efforts at changing the way we do business.” It still rings true today.

2. He noticed a change in fire department leadership in 2009, writing, “If this is the lesson being put forward by prime time television, we are in trouble as a nation,” as he responded to the effect of reality TV shows on people’s actions. Our next generation of leaders who look to social media for advice create a whole new predicament. 

In “Is Your Legacy Worth Living?” Harry suggested taking a deep evaluation of your department to see whether it’s running on the right course, he penned the importance of the individual member’s roles in carrying on the legacy of the department and its mission to serve.

He ended the article with, “I intend to carry the baton of fire service leadership for as long as the Good Lord allows my breath to carry on,” and until he was very ill, Harry carried on the legacy that we expected from him, looking to improve leaders, operations and department management.

The article was published nine years and six days before Harry would take his last breath. As he grew ill, his daughter, Katie, ran for the fire commissioner seat at Howell Township Fire District #2 that Harry dutifully filled for years. She was elected to fill that position. That great legacy continues.

In many of his writings, Harry referenced Pastor Scott Brown from the Colts Neck Reformed Church. Many of his columns and blogs were fueled by Brown’s sermons. During the funeral, Brown asked those who were gathered to continue living Harry’s desire to better the fire service by teaching, sharing, writing and engaging in the needed conversations. Let’s carry on Harry’s legacy. We owe him. 

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