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Quiet Warrior: Recognizing and empowering firefighters

Firefighting requires a team, but a strong team honors individual members for their good work and good ideas


The most important message of the Quiet Warrior initiative is about empowerment. The best teams encourage everyone to bring their best ideas and their best individual efforts to every challenge.


Sponsored by 5.11 Tactical

By Linda F. Willing

There are few occupations more team-driven than fighting fires. You literally cannot do it alone – at minimum, you have a couple people to handle the hose, someone to operate the pump, another to direct the scene, and then all the additional support for ventilation and rescue and logistics and overhaul.

This team focus informs every aspect of fire service life, both on and off the emergency scene. In general, personal stardom is not looked upon favorably. It is all about what the team achieves, not the individual. Some fire departments formalize this cultural norm with joking traditions. In my department, if you got your picture in the newspaper, your crew would have it up on the bulletin board by the next shift, and you had to buy ice cream for the station.

But firefighters also acknowledge and value the individual contributions that members make. The best teams encourage everyone to bring their best ideas and their best individual efforts to every challenge. And the best leaders empower those around them to look for opportunities to excel, to try something new, to give just a little bit more.

Honoring Good Work, Good Ideas

The most important message of the Quiet Warrior initiative is about empowerment. Firefighting requires a team, but a team only works well when its individual members are honored for the good work they do and the good ideas they have. The Quiet Warrior program recognizes that good ideas and good actions can come from anywhere in an organization and seeks to share those ideas and actions with the rest of the emergency service community.

I recently talked with Christopher Hickey, a firefighter with the Manchester, New Hampshire, Fire Department. By chance, he was on duty one day when the relative of a coworker came to the fire station, seeking help for his heroin addiction. Instead of just telling the man what to do and sending him on his way, the two firefighters took the initiative to get permission to personally drive the man to the intake treatment facility. He ended up successfully managing his addiction after being accepted into a residential treatment program.

It was a simple and spontaneous act that has had a huge impact on the local community. With support of his department, coworkers, and city officials, Hickey started a program called Safe Station, which coordinates with other community resources and provides guaranteed action and support for any addict seeking help who comes to a fire station at any hour of the day or night.

Addressing Real Needs

Hickey would not describe himself as a hero, but he is. And he and so many others like him provide that example for all others who see a need, have a new idea for a way to help and choose to take action.

There are countless examples. The firefighter who donated a kidney to a stranger, saving his life.

The EMT who builds wheelchair ramps for disabled veterans, giving them more freedom and safety in their homes. The company officer who spontaneously stopped when he saw racist graffiti on a public sidewalk and spent the next hour with his crew cleaning it up.

The firefighters who travel great distances using their own time and money to help those who have been affected by wildfire and flooding.

Firefighters who work with community members to identify small but critical needs and find ways to meet those needs, such as getting a new air conditioner for an elderly person stuck in a stifling apartment.

The list goes on and on.

Firefighters do these things not for recognition or thanks but for the fulfillment that comes with helping others and meeting a real need. These unmet needs exist everywhere but are not always seen by those in official leadership positions. Firefighters and EMS crews, the ones who are tasked with walking into people’s lives on their worst days, are in a unique position to see needs in their community that are not being adequately met.

Reaching for What Might Be Possible

It’s no secret that firefighters are resourceful. During emergency response, firefighters will make something work no matter the obstacles. This “can-do, never quit” attitude is at the core of a firefighter’s identity.

The Quiet Warrior program takes this attitude a step further, providing positive examples of what might be possible, and giving encouragement and ideas to those who want to try something in their own response areas. Through this positive sharing of ideas and accomplishments, the fire service overall will become stronger and more responsive to its community’s needs.

The Manchester Safe Station program is the perfect example of how a good idea that starts out small can create big change. Originally put together in a matter of weeks by just one firefighter, this program is now replicated throughout the state of New Hampshire, and others from around the country are calling Manchester Fire to learn how they can do something similar in their own cities and response districts.

So go ahead. Reconsider that good idea you had for making things better in your station, in your community or in the world in general. Take the risk of stepping up and asking for help in making that idea into reality. See how it goes. If it doesn’t work out, then learn from it and move on to try again later.

If it does work, and your individual idea or action ends up making a big difference, well, then go ahead and let yourself be justifiably recognized. Become a Quiet Warrior. Let your crew put your picture up on the bulletin board. Just don’t forget to bring the ice cream.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.
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