The following is an edited version of a speech that I presented before the Fire Service Higher Education Conference attendees at the National Fire Academy this Saturday:
About Educators and Instructors
Educators are leaders, visionaries and motivators. As educators you strive to take students to a different place. Educators inspire them to accomplish what they have not yet dreamed they may accomplish. But it is hard. We have a great challenge before us. Many students and potential students are contemplating the uncertain future of the American fire and EMS services. They witness their chief officers vilified before city council and in the press. The next generations of leaders see unprecedented political pressure to retain current levels of service while reducing revenue streams. These conditions exist at a time when structural fires are burning hotter and fire growth patterns are occurring unprecedented speeds. We are experiencing flashover in residential structures in 31/2 minutes. The older adult population who is most at risk due to this condition is growing in numbers.
New alternative fuels used in vehicles and structures are emerging. These fuels include biodiesel, hydrogen, ethanol, all electric vehicles and photovoltaic, solar farms and power plants. We are seeing infectious diseases spreading across continents at break neck speed. The recent out break of E coli now affecting over 1,800 people in Germany has reached now the U. S.
We know that training, information, developing and honing new skill sets are the answer. These challenges face us at a time when training dollar investment is at an all time low. So our students, the future leaders of the American fire and EMS services see what is ahead of them. They ponder how they might motivate people in this current environment. They see friends losing their jobs, losing their homes and losing ground against inflation due to pay freezes. They begin to rethink their desire to climb the corporate chain into chief executive officer status.
Man, I am not a cynic but it sure sounds like it. What we can assume is that those who are stepping forward today are the true leaders of tomorrow. They do not have a personal agenda. They truly are inspired to lead. We cannot afford to fail them.
We know the difficult decisions and choices they must make are founded on sound reasoning and based on reliable data, and only after careful analysis of their impact, there cost and there benefit. These difficult decisions and choices demand inclusion of all impacted parties and have direct relationship to organizational values. They must know that critical thinking must include consideration of the political landscape. It is going to take a special brand of courage to undertake this unique challenge.
Not all their decisions will be embraced or popular; however, they must be made regardless.
There is a story about a grandfather, grandson and their mule. As the trio proceeded on a long journey, they were continually stopped by observers. The grandfather was scolded that he should let the boy ride on the mule, not walk, because the boy is young and appeared tired. A little farther on the journey, the boy was scolded and told the grandfather should ride because the grandfather is old. Eventually, they were told that they should both ride. Then they were told that they should carry the mule, because the mule has always worked so hard for them. Each time, they obliged the requests, but as they tried to carry the mule, they became over burdened, as they crossed a bridge, slipped and dropped the mule over a side rail and the mule drowned. "The moral of this story is: When you try to please everybody, you're going to lose your ass".
There is no magic pill, no simple solution for these complicated and far reaching challenges. In America we love simplicity. Our approach in many cases has been to apply a simple solution to a complicated problem.
There is a long list; a long list of failures I might add:
· A national problem with alcohol consumption? – Prohibition.
· A national crime problem? Three strikes you are out.
· Dependence on foreign oil? Add 10% ethanol to our gasoline.
· New Orleans sinking? Build levees and install huge pumps to keep the water levels down.
We know that problem solving begins with sound strategic planning and demands skills that take advantage of among other things:
· Smart development
· Contemporary prevention, and mitigation technologies and programs
· A good dose of political and community involvement
All have their place in our classrooms today.
We want our future leaders to see beyond how things are. Seek solutions through innovation, partnerships and solutions that are realized vicariously through others including the private sector. We cannot continue to conduct ourselves as we have in the past and continue to exist as a profession. Not in the new normal. Normal is new each day. Our future leaders have to know that failed attempts at creating solutions must be set aside or retooled and new approaches found. They have to bounce back.
We do not have a choice in this matter. We cannot afford to fail. It is the people in this room and those like us that must show the next generation of fire and EMS leadership they way through this challenging time.
Mohammed Ali had a great line at the peak of his career when he was asked, "How many sit-ups do you do?" He said, "I don't count all my sit-ups. I only start counting when it starts hurting. When I feel pain, that's when I start counting, because that's when it really counts."
It will not be easy. It will be hard. There will be some pain, however we are counting on the next generation of fire and EMS leaders to carry on the great tradition of service to our country and our citizens.
(Chief Gaines is currently the acting U. S. Fire Administrator.)
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