I Have the Right to Change My Mind: Don't I?

June 22, 2011
Dr. Harry Carter discusses why firefighters and fire officers can re-evaluate their decisions based on what they are presented with.

How many times have you found yourself in a situation where the facts tell you that something you have decided to do is wrong? You used the proper decision-making skills, you gathered the necessary facts, and did what you were taught to do. And, despite all of the time and effort were expended, the problem you were attacking did not respond to your approach. In short, it was still a problem.

What's a boy to do? This is a simple example my friends.  However, there is a far more difficult problem lurking out there, ready to bite us all on the butt.

Let us suppose that you are suddenly faced with a challenge to one of your core operational values. This value is something which you were taught to do way back when you were a far younger and more trusting soul. It is a task which you have faithfully performed for more years than any of us would care to remember. And now it is obsolete. How will you handle that? Trust me when I tell you that this problem is more prevalent than I ever imagined.

The truth of the matter is that a review of the facts of the case have proven that your way of thinking is wrong. There are few things uglier or worse than a set of facts which do not support your position. I know that I have seen a number of perfectly good witch hunts which were ruined by the introduction of fresh hard facts into a given situation. As a matter of fact, you are probably lucky that no one has been injured over the life of your time on the department by the doing of the thing which is now being challenged.

Worse than that, suppose that this change impacts your entire department, and it conflicts with the organizational philosophy which has been in place for many decades. How will you begin to make the changes? My friends, this is part of a truly major problem facing our fire service today. We are glorifying behaviors which we should be working to extinguish. You know, the litany of heroic myths which surround our field of endeavor.

Like many of you, my work over the past seven years since the Life Safety Summit in Tampa has been spent working to implement the 16 Life Safety Initiatives created at that event. Much of my work has been in a number of areas:

  1. Leadership improvement and enhancement
  2. Firefighter/fire officer interaction issues
  3. Firefighter safety and injury prevention
  4. National research agenda
  5. Fireground risk assessment

A lot of what we do involves dangerous things. When someone dies we tend to give them a heroes sendoff, which is probably what we should do. However, once the ceremonies are over, we need to devote ourselves to learning the hard lessons of what caused the person (or persons) to die. In far too many cases we are merely telling the world that we have a dangerous job and that death and injury are just part of the cost of doing business. My friends that sort of behavior is not what we should be doing. I have buried too many buddies to believe that load of manure.

Let me suggest, at this point, that you must first come to a simple, but profound realization. It is OK to change your mind. People have fought in wars to defend our right to make up our minds as we see fit. And when we want to, we can change our minds. The only constraint on this privilege is that no one else should be hurt by our decisions.

Here is where the problem begins to emerge. There are many people who feel that changing their mind is a sign of weakness. This probably comes from the Old West view of the individual as a resolute, strong silent type. And if you gained your perception of the good old days from the movies, think about it...was John Wayne ever made to change his mind, or look weak? Perhaps there were instances of this, but I am hard-put to remember any.

This is truly one of those areas where we will have to change our paradigm. So, as John F. Kennedy said during his inaugural speech, "… let the word go forth … that the torch has been passed." He was referring to the change from the 19th Century people who had led us up to this point, to his generation which had been born in the early part of the 20th Century.

In our case, we are asking you to change your view of mind-changing as a concept. To many of us who were born at the height of the Baby Boom (1946-1964) the fire service has been all about the dignity of facing death and danger to protect our fellow citizens. Some fire people died, but the majority did not. Why change the school of thought which has been in place since time immemorial? Why rock the boat? Why get the traditionalists mad at us?

Before we go any further, let us make one point clear. When it comes to mind-changing, I am personally a work-in-progress. There are areas where I have been flowing nicely with the latest changes in the fire service word. While I am not an EMT, I have come recognize that EMS belongs in the fire service. The same holds true for a number of programmatic areas:

  1. Hazmat
  2. Customer service
  3. Public education
  4. Disaster response
  5. Counter-terrorism
  6. Specialized rescue

To many my words have been seen as heresy. We are in the fire department to fight fires and that is that. In many cities the need for these modern services is not as obvious as it is in other smaller communities. The problem is usually resource-based in nature. Many places are financially stressed-out just getting the fire trucks on the road. The focus in such places is reactive. They arrive at work and begin reacting to the problems de jour. The cure to their disease is a tough dose of medicine to take.

Heck, the fact that we have failed to keep pace with the times had led to cases like the one in California where non-fire people are telling us what to do and how to do it. My friends, I have never thought about telling a judge or a lawyer how to perform their duties as stewards of the law. But that does not stop people like the grand jury in California from telling us how to provide our services.

We need to change our mindset if we are to survive the current turbulent times in our nation. Your new mind set change must be directed toward adopting a pro-active approach to our service delivery system. The things which you must do to make this happen will have to be well-thought-out. However, you will also need to be forceful in the creation of this new way of doing business.

It is my fear that my call for a change in how we treat death in our fire service will be misread and scorned. I am not calling for an end to line-of-duty death ceremonies. That is not the case at all. No, what I am calling for is an understanding of the fact that most of these deaths did not have to happen. We need to honor the dead, but not go out and continue to work hard to kill the living.

You must get people's attention in a way which they cannot ignore. These people will need to respond in the same way and manner as Saul did when he was struck with the blinding light of Biblical times on his journey to Jerusalem. His was a life altering experience. So too must it be for the people you are seeking to bring into the 21st Century way of thinking.

Of course they may never change. That is their right. In these cases, you have to wait them out. They will eventually retire on their own, or do something so incredibly stupid that their retirement is requested. Their job is to recognize that it is time to get out of the way. Your job is to assist them in making this call.

Your assignment, as I see it, is to be ready to make all of the necessary changes to the job when the time is right. I cannot tell you when this will happen, but you need to be vigilant, ready, and willing to do the right things. Learn how to be proactive, to anticipate what is happening around you. And be flexible and ready to change your mind and direction as facts and circumstances dictate.

You can also perform an important function which requires no small amount of courage on your part. To help your department begin the process of changing its organizational mind, you must begin standing up to the boss. Your department is not well-served by you being a "Yes-Man." You have to put forward the most modern view, in a positive, supportive manner.

Do not think for a moment that it is my intention to encourage abuse, insubordination, or insolence. No my friends, your approach must be conducted within the rules and regulations of your department, not to mention the bounds of propriety and civil discourse. Be aware that in stepping forward to propose change, you will be subjecting yourself to the scrutiny of the boss, as well as all of your buddies who live for and love the status quo.

Let me assure you that it is my desire to have you understand that when I say scrutiny, I want you to equate the concept of scrutiny to abuse. People will be tough on you. They will bust your chops and work to make you feel like an outcast. I have been there and done that. My experience tells me to urge you to stand your ground. Be firm. If you can agree with the boss, please do so; but not just to hear the sound of your voice.

I am saying that you can be a force for change in your department. I have said that it is all right for anyone to change their mind. What we have not said to you yet is that you can really only control one mind: yours! But what you can be is a force for change.

One of the best ways to teach is by example. If you can demonstrate that it is appropriate to occasionally change your mind, it can set the tone for change in your immediate work area. The higher the rank of the individual changing their mind, the larger will be the work area that is impacted by that change.

A word of caution is appropriate at this point. Do not change your mind too often. This is called vacillation, and is a very poor thing to do. However, there will be times when you will have to stand your ground in the fact of non-factual opposition. People will assail you with the dreaded words which fall into two general categories:

  1. We've never done it that way!
  2. We've always done it that way!

These words will have to roll off of you like water off of a duck's back. If I had stopped the first time I heard those words, there is a good chance that I might not have ever progressed to the position in life which I now hold.

Let me close with a restatement of thesis. It is OK to change your mind, provided that the facts indicate that a change is in order. Do not change your mind just to curry favor or to gain selfish personal advantage. Do not vacillate. Many are the times that I have been beaten about the head, shoulders, and body, but I am still here to tell you to carry on the battle. There is one really important point to remember: The opposition may be able to kill you, but they can't eat you, because that is not the act of a civilized foe.

You must open your mind to the world around you. I say that so that you will become better attuned to when and where changes will be necessary. Show your department how to change. Provide the guidance and live the behaviors you want to see in the future. It won't be easy, but then again, many of the best things in life are never easy.

  • See Harry Live! Lt. Dr. Harry Carter, will be presenting "The Leadership/Followership Equation: The Key to Fire Department Success" at Firehouse Expo, July 19 - 23, in Baltimore.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Follow Harry on his "A View From my Front Porch" blog. He recently several texts, including Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip. You can reach Harry by e-mail at [email protected].

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