Great Fire Service Leaders Must "Kindle the Spark"

Sept. 1, 2007

Many times, it has been my good fortune to receive a new thought from an unexpected place. One evening, I found myself in my favorite chair with an old magazine and an even older book. The magazine was a 2001 edition of The New Jersey Freemason. The book was Stephen R. Covey's fabulous The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It was the combination of these two literary works that led to a very late night for me. The inspiration for many a number of problems facing me in different parts of my life came at me fast and furiously.

At first, the message from the Grand Master of Masons in New Jersey at that time seemed fairly simple. He began by quoting that e-mail message of today's young people that many of us have seen on more than one occasion. You know the one. It states in part, "They have never feared a nuclear war. Most have never seen a black-and-white TV..." It is amazing how you can read something many times, and not get the point until it comes to you in a blinding flash. You young people are really quite different from us older folks.

If this then is the case, how can we expect them to join us in any endeavor, unless we can discover what they are all about? While the Grand Master was addressing his remarks to the Brotherhood of Free and Accepted Masons in New Jersey, I felt that he was saying things that crossed the borders of every organization I can imagine. Really folks, is there a more ritualistic or traditional group than Freemasonry? Many of the things we do during our Masonic rituals have passed intact from the days predating the founding of our great nation. But is this concept of change limited to just the Masons? What about all of the rest of society?

Once we understand the motivational factors for people of all ages, we must willingly seek them out and let them share in what we do. And it is critical to approach them in a way that is amenable to them. It has long been my experience that no one likes to join a group where they will be abused, belittled, browbeaten or 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.

It is a human trait to want things to remain as they are, even though such thinking is a fool's mission. In the Grand Master's commentary, he urges Masons throughout New Jersey to embrace the younger generation. He urges us to seek these people out. But more than that, he urges 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 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 onto 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.

By now you may be wondering where Stephen Covey's book fits into this discussion. In the early part of his text, he pounds home the need for us to become proactive in our view of the world. He speaks 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. I believe that this is a critical thought that complements those in the paragraphs above. If change is to occur in the fire service, someone has to cause it to occur.

While returning from a meeting at the National Fire Academy, I passed a construction equipment distributor next to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I love to ride by that facility because it has a signboard out front with motivational sayings. That day, it had a particularly insightful statement: "The only way to manage change is to create it." This leads me directly into my next thought from the Covey text. On page 89 he states, "(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. But the answers to all of our problems must come from within. If we need members, we must 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 "What's in it for me?" we must develop an answer.

As Masons, we face one serious hurdle in recruiting new members: we are prohibited from asking people to join. People must decide that they wish to join us and then ask us how to go about becoming members. Now there is one strong negative to creating an effective recruiting program. We in the fire service are also having recruiting problems. That is a well-known fact. As a matter of fact, my friend Ed Carpenter, president of the Fireman's Association of the State of New York (FASNY), has made recruiting and retention the driving force during his two-year incumbency. We still have one great thing going for us that gives us a leg up in the recruiting world: we can ask people to join our fire departments.

We need to learn what our younger generation wants out of life. We need to make such adaptations as are necessary to ensure 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 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, because they had not yet been born. When we ask someone to do something, we must be able to give that person a logical, authoritative answer that is based in the real world of today.

I am of the 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 trash by minor dictators.

The day of the dictatorial fire chief is long gone, but don't get me wrong — someone will always have to be in charge. The most successful leaders build 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. I've 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.

DR. HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is the former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. Dr. Carter is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Currently chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners for Howell Township District 2, he retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is vice president of the American Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers (MIFireE). He recently published Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip, which was also the subject of a blog. He may be contacted at [email protected].

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