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New Threats Loom – Who Has Command?

New Threats Loom
Who Has Command?

My granddaughter recently asked me if I was a hero. I contemplated her question for a moment and was reminded of a response from a World War II veteran who when asked the same question responded by saying, "No Sweetie, but I have had the privilege and honor of serving alongside many heroes." By heroes I don't mean the fella' who is known to say on occasion "Chief, wet me down, I'm going back in." I am talking about the men and women who are the very few who stand where the greatest numbers of their peers step aside. I am talking about those in our profession who rise to the pinnacle of our profession. The position is simply known as Chief. When you meet a person with the title Fire Chief there is no question what position the person before you holds. We know the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the community's citizens and all personnel in the department rests solely on the shoulders of the person in front of you.

I have often wondered how those who have chosen to lead, the very few who are willing to place themselves in positions of great responsibility succeeded. The reality is, even the most magnificent minds in history, at some point had no idea why or how they ultimately ascended to this position of ultimate challenge.

All they do realize is they possess the love and passion for what they believed in and that of their chosen profession. The secret to their success is an extraordinary appetite for curiosity and willingness to adapt. They follow their passion taking pathways toward accomplishment. These very few are quite willing to put themselves out there. They are huge risk takers and smile in the face of insurmountable barriers and criticism.

So how did it all begin? Well we know the most successful in our profession began as firefighters with a commitment to a life time of learning. Why do they continue to learn when they have spent their entire early life learning?  They fully realize the environment around them is changing every day, every hour. Many of these changes put our lives, our families and our organizations at risk.

So if we are to contribute, if we are to lead, we must continue to be seekers of information and to motivate others to join us. If we are to innovate and motivate creativity in our organizations we must see the future. It is up to us analyze and evaluate potential opportunities and seek out dangers that do not exist today but will most assuredly surface in the future. Once these new opportunities and dangers are discovered, again, it is up to us to adapt and create new trategies and ideas to meet them.

Oliver Wendell Holmes is quoted as saying: "One's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions."

Oliver Wendell Holmes

So what is ahead for us? How do we plan for what we as a profession are about to experience?

I researched some of our greatest futurist and landed on Yogi Berra’s website. Yogi offers this guidance about planning: "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.""

What we do know is if we are to lead and do not have a vision, a plan, we are destined to fail.  In the early stages of our lives, we are looking for some semblance of direction, some guidance, a road map.

The most successful of all people are those who found something they loved to do, and produced enough value that someone is willing to pay them for it. They see not only what is available to them now, but also what possibilities for personal and professional growth lay ahead.  I know in my case it came from within not something that was forced upon me and not based on a vision of grandeur, self-promotion or financial success.

In fact, a mentor of mine said to me just after I announced that I had been successful in passing the exam for firefighter in Fairfax County, VA Fire Department,  "Glenn, man, with your self-motivation you should get into the private sector. You're never going to get rich or live comfortably working for government."  I responded by saying something like, "Well that may be true, but this is something special and I like it."  Turns out he was both right and wrong at the same time. I am rich in ways only those who dare to stand in the blue line appreciate.

I believe one of the best descriptions of our role as leaders is captured in the following quote by Carroll Bryant, Author: "Some people make things happen. Some watch things happen. While others wonder what has happened."  We also have to pay attention. Today we refer to paying attention as environmental scanning.

There are no guarantees in life we are told. Well, I will give you one. As fire and EMS professionals, we all face big trouble in our lives. We face unimaginable horror, sorrows and challenges.  Some of us will confront them with fear; some with passive refrain and allow their peers to meet the challenge, some will run. Those outliers who rise to the very pinnacle of our profession confront these terrifying events with daring and a calm organized resolve. They are quite adapt at instantaneously assessing the situation presented, assessing the current risk and how it might change given a variety of conditions, then acting in a positive, measured and well-conceived manner to meet the challenge.

So what drives this response? How could these very few outliers act while others choose to run or defer to someone else?

They have learned that the very sweetness in life is knowing they contributed to saving a life or reducing human suffering in a way few others could conceive or are unwilling to consider. We also know they went to extraordinary lengths to prepare themselves for the moment. These outliers realize that big opportunities exist where big problems live.  The challenges and risks may be substantial, but the potential rewards are unlimited.

Professor Ruth Wertheimer at Trinity College (Better known as Doctor Ruth) is quoted as saying, "My favorite animal is the turtle. The reason is in order for the turtle to move, it has to stick its neck out."

Doctor Ruth

If we had the opportunity to ask those who graduated from both the academic and hard knock universities like Jonas Sulk, Mohamed Ali, Dr. Martin Luther King or Senator John Glen they would whisper to each of you "If you do not want to, then don't. If you are afraid, you must."

So what are the conditions facing us and the opportunities for the future and what must we do to prepare for them?

This is what we know today:

  • Recovery of the economy will be slow (3 to 5 years)
  • New fuels will continue to make their way into the market and create new challenges for our profession.
  • Communication and educational mediums will provide us with new opportunities to reach out to a wider audience, if we leverage them in a way that is appealing to our constituents.
  • The population we serve will continue to increase, age and diversify.
  • Threats to our country, its people and our personnel will change and continue to challenge the way we train, prepare and protect them.
  • Technologies designed to improve our efficiency, effectiveness and ability to fulfill our mission will continue to surface.
  • Manual firefighting is not a growth industry. Accordingly, we must continue to broaden our portfolio of services.
  • And if we are to succeed we must be willing to work really hard.

At the peak of his career Mohammed Ali had a great line when he was asked, "How many sit-ups do you do when you work out?" 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."

If we want to succeed, if we want to be successful in leading our organizations into the future, we know what we must do. The profession depends on us, they have no one else. We cannot afford to fail in these uniquely challenging times.  Those who follow us will be the beneficiary of our successes or the victims of our failures.

May God bless each of you.

May God bless firefighters and emergency personnel on duty today across our great country and keep them safe.

May God bless and protect Americans in outposts around the world keeping us safe from those who want to do us harm.

And may God bless America. Thank you,

Glenn A. Gaines
Deputy U. S. Fire Administrator

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