How to lead the fire service in 2017 and beyond

Our collective ambivalence toward the future hamstrings us from better protecting the public and grooming our next leaders, and that has to change

The election is over; the new year is nearly upon us. It is time to think about the future.

Unfortunately, an orientation toward the future is not among many fire departments’ core competencies. Historically, the fire service has been very committed to the past: through traditions, stories and shared experiences.

Past practice guides many decision-making processes. Past events are honored. We vow to “never forget.”

Fire departments operate in the currency of the present tense. The alarm goes off, the department responds.

In a profession that is based on emergency response, it is impossible to reliably plan any given day. The most important aspect of the job — saving lives, property and mitigating harm — holds priorities that take precedence over all else.

As a result, some fire service leaders are wary of much planning for the future.

“What good does it do?” they ask. “Next year our tax base could be different; we’ll probably have a new mayor; we could have a major incident or a bad wildfire season, which would make all those detailed plans useless anyway.”

Our ambivalence

This past/present vs. future orientation can show up in a number of ways. I recently read a study that stated in its findings that firefighters in the survey had “surprisingly positive attitudes toward having their departments do more prevention.”

The fact that this outcome was surprising underscores the expectation that many firefighters would rather not do prevention work, the branch of the department most focused on the future.

An ambivalent attitude about the future is also expressed in how some veteran firefighters and officers view new members of their departments.

I hear it all the time: that new firefighters are spoiled, entitled, soft, lazy, clueless. That they don’t understand or value things like seniority or tradition. That they are only motivated to get what is possible without making any effort or commitment.

I take issue with these conclusions for two reasons. First, they are not true. And second, reinforcing these beliefs is not in the best interest of any individual firefighter or the fire service as a whole.

New firefighters today are better trained and prepared for the job compared to just about any firefighter coming on the job 30 years ago.

What they bring

The standards today are so much higher for entry level firefighters: many departments require certifications, educational credits or degrees, and often work experience, just to be considered in the application process.

In addition, new firefighters face rigorous physical testing processes before being admitted to the department.

So new firefighters are educated and physically fit. They know (or should know) what the job entails. They often must pass grueling training academies before being allowed to work in the field. They are ready.

Do newer firefighters also bring deficits and liabilities with them? Of course they do, like every previous generation did as well.

Young firefighters did not grow up in the trades and fewer may have military experience, although this proportion has changed a bit in recent years as veterans enter the workforce.

Young firefighters may not have replaced the engine in their cars or built their own homes from the ground up, but honestly, how many people today have had those experiences?

One thing that older firefighters complain about among newer recruits is their need for feedback, their questioning nature and their commitment to meritocracy vs. seniority.

But this is the world they have grown up in, a world of technology that changes literally by the month, a world where interactivity is expected. Thinking that others will follow just because you say so and never ask why is something that ended with the last century.

Our burden

Today, aspiring firefighters compete fiercely for career positions. If a department has a good selection process, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be able to hire excellent firefighters in every recruit class.

And if one or two years later, those promising young firefighters are now lazing around in recliner chairs refusing to look up from their phones, well, whose fault is that? Who is responsible for fostering and maintaining that potential once a firefighter joins a department?

And that brings me to my second point of disagreement with those who discount or disrespect the next generation of firefighters. They are the future. They will be calling the shots in 20 years, or sooner.

Time spent today mentoring young firefighters, discovering and reinforcing their strengths and bolstering their weaknesses — this is time spent not only improving your own fire department, but also building the fire service of the future.

It may be hard to imagine those young, inexperienced, sometimes clueless new firefighters as carrying forward the valued competencies and traditions of the fire service. New firefighters will sometimes stumble and fail.

Keep in mind that immaturity is a common disease of the young. You were there once. You probably succeeded because someone believed in you, gave you a chance and treated you with inclusion and respect.

And that’s all that is being asked of you now.

In the movie “Remember the Titans,” the football team captain berates a member of the team for what he perceives as his bad attitude. The other player looks at the captain and responds, “Attitude reflects leadership.”

Indeed it does.

As you work to lead others on your department, never forget to honor the traditions and sacrifices made by those who came before you.

But also allow yourself to imagine what might be possible in the future and commit yourself to shaping that possibility — and your legacy — by recognizing, valuing and including those new firefighters who are the future.

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