We Are the Masters Of Our Own Fate

Jan. 1, 2004
Times are tough in the fire service. We are no longer the darlings and heroes of the post-9/11 world. Once again, we are seen as just one more drain on the local budget. This confirms many of my earlier observations about the short memories and lack of sincerity among politicians and political appointees.

Many fire departments are facing layoffs. How bad is it? Even Phoenix has had to lay off civilian employees. How do I know this? A recent issue of the fire department newsletter mentioned that production and distribution of the newsletter was being halted as a money-saving effort, and that civilians were going to be laid off. Times are truly tough. But that means that we have to be just a little smarter and tougher than the people in city hall.

More times than I can recall, I have heard chief fire officers curse the fate that dealt them the lousy hand they must play in the card game of life. If only they had more money. If only they had better equipment. If only they had better people, more skilled at knowing how to follow the orders of the brilliant person chosen for the role of fire chief.

Sound familiar?

Let’s face facts. We must accept the fact that we must become the masters of our own fate. We have to stop blaming others for our problems. We need to tell our story.

We must tell the politicians what we need and then lay the blame on them when things go bad. They have been getting a free ride for far too long. We need to tell the public that we would like to do more, but cannot. When the politicians attack us, we must quickly parry the thrust of the arguments toward the troops in city hall. Ladies and gentlemen of the community, it is the local government who is at fault for starving your local fire department.

Sadly, many people in fire service leadership roles only have themselves and their view of life to blame. They need to reach out and embrace their fellow travelers in the emergency service world. An article by Beth Fitzgerald in the Star Ledger newspaper of Newark, NJ, laid out what I believe to be the facts quite succinctly. Interestingly, much of what she says, even as it refers to business people in the private sector, transfers well to the fire and emergency service world. Fitzgerald was on the offensive in an attack on the corporate leaders who are taking our country to hell in a handbasket. I really enjoyed her comments.

One of my favorites came when she discussed the likes of Kenneth Lay of Enron fame and Martha Stewart of House Beautiful fame. She states quite candidly, “You would think our leaders would know how to behave when the whole world is against them.”

I guess these business people should turn to our fire service world for a lesson or two in perseverance and fortitude. How many times do we operate in an environment where seemly everyone and everything is against us? The politicians want us to deliver the best possible service in the world on a shoestring budget. If we are not on scene at a life-and-death incident in 12 seconds flat, we are made to appear as the goats; scapegoats, that is. We are the folks that people love – sometimes. We are also the folks those same people love to forget about, when it suits them, or hate when they feel it is appropriate.

Fitzgerald’s article goes on to emphasize the “maladaptive behaviors” discussed by Susan Battley, a leadership psychologist. See if any of these seem familiar to you.

As a man who has been writing and lecturing about leadership issues in the fire service for nearly three decades, I have seen these exact same behaviors in the fire and emergency service world. You see, we are just one subset of our general society. These behaviors are indicative of what might generously be called a “bunker mentality.” These “bunker” behaviors are a one-way ticket to failure as a leader.

There you sit, within the confines of your cozy little underground bunker, hunkered down as you wait for the problems of the world to pass you by. Sorry gang, they will not go away just because you hide from them. When you move out to seek a breath of fresh air, wham, they will smack you smartly.

During one of my seminars at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore, I discussed the many facets of problem solving as it applied to effective leadership. In another session, I provided suggestions on how a person might become a better fire chief. Each of the leadership mistakes listed by Fitzgerald mirrors my comments at those educational sessions. Each also serves as a destabilizing factor in the life of an organization. They are good examples of really bad behaviors.

In my session on problem solving, I suggested behaviors that people should use when confronted with problems. I discovered a long time ago that a problem demands attention. It requires someone to make a decision. Ignoring a problem will only allow it to lie festering within the fabric of your organizational tapestry, only to emerge later in a far more destructive manner.

Much like the toothache that you keep hoping will go away, unwanted problems only decay and degenerate over time. When you finally seek attention, the cure is likely to be much worse than it would have been had you sought immediate attention. In that seminar, I urged the members of my audience to step up, stare their problems right in the eye and meet them head on. Think about it; if the French and English had done that to Hitler and his thugs in 1938, how different might the history of the world have been?

The second point made above seems to be the educated explanation of the concept of sour grapes. Think about those people you may have known who have pursued a particular goal for many months or years in a vain attempt to gain a little bit of success.

After seeing someone else gain some form of success that they wished to gain for themselves, these people can often be heard muttering, “It’s not all that important” or “It’s not as great as you think it is.” This is also called rationalization, which is to say, “If it was all that great, I would be the one to have gotten it.” That is sour grapes in my book. This is a sad, negative commentary. If something is not important, why did you pursue it in the first place? These are the same people who are heard to say, “It doesn’t matter, really.”

Jealousy is a terrible thing. Be happy for what you accomplish. It may be that you have set unrealistically high goals for yourself. It may be that the people of whom you are jealous really do have better skill sets. Do not be jealous of them; work to emulate them. Study their success so that you may learn how they did it. That way, their efforts can help you to attain your goals. There should be no hesitation on your part when it comes to finding better ways to do your job. This is not an easy skill to acquire, but you should seek to do just this.

I also want you to understand that the issues in life are not easily portrayed in the absolutes of a black/white, or yes/no form of vision. One of the beauties of life lies in the fact that life consists of a wide variety of hues, colors and shades. One person’s success might actually be portrayed as another person’s failure, because of differing individual levels of expectation.

Life in the fire service is never as simple as saying, “We are right and they are wrong.” Neither is it as simple as saying someone else is the problem, not me or us. Reasonable discussion and discourse is the basis for a civil society. When people can come together and share their true feelings, they are better able to get along with one another.

There are cases in your own area, I imagine, where these type of behaviors are at work. People sit behind the high walls of their little tribal villages and hurl rocks at the people in the next village because “They are different” or “They won’t listen to reason.” Might it be that you are the one who is different? Might it also be that you are the one who will not step forward and enter into a reasonable form of communication with your neighbors?

In the absence of discourse, there is discord. If we are to deliver an effective service in the face of diminished resources, we must pool what we have with our neighbors. Many hands make the work light. A corollary to this might sound something like this: It takes many hands to stretch a tight budget to fit your needs.

I guess it will always be easier to fix blame than to fix problems. It is a lot easier to remain silent than to speak up. Since everyone is hiding behind the walls of their own forts, the process of rationalization makes it easy to live in your daily world. Since everyone else is hiding within the walls of their own forts, this form of behavior is more easily undertaken. This is a sad way to live and a very poor way to operate the fire service.

It is critical for us to stand up and let our voices be heard. We cannot be the best in the absence of increased funding. With the thrust of our federal government leaning heavily on the law enforcement side of the homeland security issue, we must make ourselves known. While they might want to buy guns, badges, bullets and shoulder patches, we must convince them that fire departments will always get the first call in times of crisis.

Our fate is in our own hands. Until we can learn to step out from behind our egos, shake hands and make friends, we will not progress as a fire service. Our leaders must be willing to put aside their differences and work collectively to foster a true sense of community within the fire and emergency services world.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., MIFireE, is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is a former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI). Dr. Carter is an associate professor at Mercer County Community College and a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. A fire commissioner 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 a Member of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (MIFireE). You can contact him through his website at [email protected].

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