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Buckman and Ludwig: Chief to chief and president to president

A former IAFC president interviews the incoming president about his goals for the organization and hopes for the fire service


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Gary Ludwig – fire chief of the Champaign (Illinois) Fire Department and FireRescue1 and Fire Chief columnist and editorial advisory board member – was sworn in as International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) president on Thursday, Aug. 8, at the Fire-Rescue International conference in Atlanta. Chief John M. Buckman III – former IAFC president and current FireRescue1 and Fire Chief editorial board member – interviewed Chief Ludwig to learn more about his background, his fire department and his goals as IAFC president.

Champaign Fire Department Fire Chief Gary Ludwig grew up on the south side of St. Louis, Missouri. He has influenced the fire service for 42 years through his advocacy for fire-based EMS, firefighter health and safety, and myriad other issues. He has authored three books and over 500 articles for fire service websites and publications, and has inspired and motivated many over his years of service to be a better person and a servant leader.

I have had the privilege of knowing Gary for more than 30 years starting when he was the chief paramedic for the St. Louis (Missouri) Fire Department.

I was honored to speak with Chief Ludwig as he prepares to become president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, a position I held from 2001-2002.

Gary Ludwig – fire chief of the Champaign (Illinois) Fire Department – will be sworn in as International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) president at the Fire-Rescue International conference in Atlanta, and officially take the reins on Aug. 10, 2019.
Gary Ludwig – fire chief of the Champaign (Illinois) Fire Department – will be sworn in as International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) president at the Fire-Rescue International conference in Atlanta, and officially take the reins on Aug. 10, 2019.

Chief Buckman: Who influenced you to become the leader you are?

Chief Ludwig: My mom set the example for me as a servant leader. She taught me how to be a leader by setting the example of how to treat others.

We lived on the south side of St. Louis, Missouri, on a street with neatly aligned three-story brick homes with a 36-inch gangways between them. Twice a week the garbage men would come down the alley behind the house to empty the garbage cans. There were three men on the garbage truck. It was hard, dirty, hot and smelly work. One drove and two walked on each side of the truck, emptying the cans into the back of the trash truck.

It did not matter whether it was100 degrees or snowing, my mom showed respect for these men. Mom would go out when she heard the truck coming down the alley with water, Kool-Aid and/or sandwiches for the men. She would feed them or give them something to drink since they were not paid very well, and she felt sorry for them because of their work conditions. She saw them as people who needed to be treated as people. Some would say this was beneath her, but mom saw them as people needing to be treated better.

Mom was a servant to those around her. She taught me the principles of servant leadership: Show respect for others and treat others well. We are servants, especially in the positions that we are in as fire chiefs to accept our primary responsibility, which is not about us, but it is about others.

Dad demonstrated the actions of “true love.” When mom was 84 years old, she had a stroke. Her speech was affected, but her mind and mobility were not. Dad spent every day sitting and sleeping at her bedside in the beginning of that process and the end of her life. For six years, he cared for her every day. Dad was 90 years old when his wife died.

What makes the Champaign Fire Department strong?

Ludwig: The firefighters are not only excellent as firefighters but also as people. The firefighters understand and accept that they have a duty to the citizens and visitors to Champaign to provide service. The firefighters are outstanding and dedicated professionals. The community support for the fire department is great. The local economy is robust. The city manager and city council provide great support.

The words “Here to serve you” are on the side of each piece of Champaign fire apparatus. That slogan sets the tone for service of the firefighters and staff of the department. The slogan was a choice of the firefighters, not the fire chief.

The Champaign Fire Department’s annual report is not on paper; it is a 4-minute video. Champaign’s fire staff and the IT department developed the information that was important to the citizens of Champaign, not the information the fire department thought was important to the citizens. 

The Champaign Fire Department recently completed a community risk reduction (CRR) plan. One of the items discovered in the development of the CRR plan was that cooking fires contributed to the fire load 31.6% of the time. The assessment also discovered that 25% of the approximately 55,000 students at the University of Illinois are international students who might not necessarily have English as their primary language. Champaign Fire Department has a large social media presence, but it is all written in English. They are trying to make changes to their social media interactions to have better outreach.

The City of Champaign’s growth is being sustained by new developments, including high rises and redevelopment of existing structures. The City did over $248 million in new construction last year. The University of Illinois expects to increase student enrollment by as much as 25%, which will increase call volume.

One of the many things Chief Neil Svetanics – former fire chief of St. Louis – told me was to, “Surround myself with good people and they will make you and the department look good.”

I believe my firefighters are responsive to the community needs and accept the duties of a progressive, all-hazards fire department.

What do you see as a future fire service issue?

Ludwig: Fire departments need to realize that we are an all-hazard service agency. Firefighting is a priority, but we are so much more. Fire departments are going to have expand their service deliveries, without additional funding in many cases, to become more proactive in community service education.

The fire service at the local, state, national and international levels needs to recognize that it is the fire department that responds to Mrs. Smith emergency cry for help, and it is not necessarily because her kitchen is on fire. More EMS and public service calls will create significant challenges for local and state officials to meet their community needs.

Elected officials, fire chiefs and labor organizations need to address the illusion that the fire service only fights fire, and everything else we do becomes secondary. We need to embrace the concept that we are an all-hazard service agency. We deal with any issue the public requests that is not a crime. Cat in the tree, grandma fell and can’t get up, she is alone and can’t find her medications and is now feeling dizzy, motor vehicle crash, water flow in the building – we are the one who is going to respond.

Our recruiting posters always show flames and smoke – a firefighter is there with a hoseline. This is a misrepresentation to those applying for firefighter jobs. Firefighting is a necessary and important service we provide, but it is a small percentage of what we actually do these days. The majority of the time when a firefighter is not fighting fire, we are in the community services and public safety business.

Further, the fire service needs to embrace new technology and new ideas. We will have to become creative in finding funding for the new technology. Technology will not solve all of our problems, but it can help the fire service be more effective and efficient in the delivery of a very expanding set of services.

There will be new practices based on research that can improve firefighter safety. Fire departments will have to work hard to stay current. Change is the only constant in the fire service. Although traditions are valuable, they can’t stand in the way of progress. If you are stagnant, you are in a rut, and the only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.

What advice do you have for future leaders? What does someone who wants to become a leader have to do to be able to make a difference?

Ludwig: Be resilient. Stick to your principles and values. Understand what you can do and what you can’t do. Focus on what you can do. People will resist change. Resistance to change is a normal part of what a leader must deal with. When you try to create change, people will resist. As a leader, you have to have a process by which you affect change that includes empowering others and giving ownership of the change to others.

You must be persistent and persuasive. A lot of ideas have died because of resistance. People you lead are comfortable where they are, and change takes them out of that comfort zone. Leaders who are change-makers in some cases give up too easy.

People will chastise you because you are wanting to make the fire service a better place than you found it. But remember the Boy Scouts motto, “Leave the campground a better place than you found it.” That’s what leadership is about – making a difference and leaving the fire service better than you found it.

How do you define a professional?

Ludwig: Someone who understands service is not about them but rather about serving the community – and they conduct themselves in that manner. Taking care of the community is our primary responsibility, and a true professional does that in the highest likely manner possible.

What is the priority project you plan that you hope to work on during your tenure as IAFC president?

Ludwig: There are four things:

#1: “If you don’t feel well, don’t make it your farewell.” I have studied the NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention reports and cardiac events, and I like to think I have been a student of NIOSH reports. I try to learn the why and how firefighters die.

We use the NIOSH reports in our training sessions. Most of the firefighter cardiac events have a common theme: Firefighters will say something about not feeling well, not feeling good, or something is wrong. Family, firefighters and friends most often say go lay down in the bunk hall or they tell them to go home, and the next thing that occurs is the firefighter has a heart attack. We have to encourage firefighters to go see a medical professional when they don’t feel well instead of ignoring the symptom. At a minimum, we need to put them on an EKG machine and see what their heart is doing.

This program will center on developing an education component to help the decision-making process of what actions to take for the firefighter and officers. The symptoms are recognizable. The first meeting of the task force will be at Fire-Rescue International in Atlanta the first week of August. Metro Chiefs, EMS, Safety, Health and Survival Section VCOS and AMR will be a part of this committee.

The committee will develop goals, objectives and measurable outcomes and then come back to the IAFC Board and determine how to roll out this program and sustain it for years to come. I hope through this initiative, we can reduce firefighter cardiac deaths. We will seek medical advice to help with this initiative to make sure it is implemented appropriately.

#2: Challenge fire departments and their leadership to join the IAFC. Non-members benefit from the IAFC initiatives that we are driving in Washington, DC, including getting AFG and SAFER grants.

#3: Increase the IAFC brand. I’d like to increase our visibility on national and international TV when a large fire/disaster occurs to tell the story about the fire service and help promote our legislative efforts. The IAFC should be doing more outreach to help the public understand the role of the firefighter. We should proactively reach out to the national and international media and tell the story of the fire service, and brand the IAFC as the “go-to” expert when it comes to the fire service.

#4: Show our solidarity with the military by laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier each year. The IAFC staff is currently looking into the protocols and if there is an opportunity.

Ludwig’s closing comments

Continue to focus on others in your community and not yourself. There is a good book that I re-read each and every year – Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” I suggest all leaders read this book. Become interested in others – interested and concerned about their needs and what you need to serve your community. Our people have needs and wants, and they expect support from their leaders. They don’t want to know how much you know – they want to know how much you care.

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