Good fire officers should be courted
I recently attended a meeting where a fire coordinator from another county stood up and stated that he was concerned about the poor quality of many of the Chiefs who were currently being elected into office in his county. Many in the room shook their heads in agreement with this statement and seemed to agree that the criteria for being elected Chief should be more than a popularity contest.
I thought about the gentleman's statement on the way home from the meeting and concluded that, in general, we in the volunteer fire service are very lucky.
The majority of our Chiefs do a good or, at least, an acceptable job for us. And, the position of Chief is more complex and demanding now than ever before.
We do, however, have our share (just like any other field) of individuals who have no business donning a white helmet and assuming the awesome responsibilities of Chief. I have been to some annual dinners where everyone in the department seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as the outgoing Chief stepped down, and also at others where the members were genuinely sad to see an obviously great leader and administrator end his term.
Great leadership is a complicated mix of talents and qualities. Some individuals appear to be innately gifted, but for most it is a combination of talents, common sense, the ability to stay calm and think under pressure, and a tremendous amount of learned skills -- EDUCATION AND EXPERIENCE!
Every community has a few leaders who are so well respected that they are almost legendary. How are these leaders able to motivate other volunteers?
Not everyone is born with the temperament or the abilities to be a good leader. However, when an individual possesses these abilities and has the energy and desire needed to educate himself in the field of firemanics, the results and accomplishments can be incredible.
Many fire departments now have educational prerequisites included in their by-laws. These departments require that an individual must take certain courses before he can advance in rank. Some of these organizations require a tremendous amount of education and years of experience.
This is how it should be. It won't guarantee a good Chief, but it will help increase the chances.
Many very talented people just don't have the necessary time needed to meet all these requirements or to do the job as Chief.
When you do get that quality Chief who possesses all of the abilities, the right personality, the training and experience that are needed, it seems like before you know it, his term is up. Many fire departments traditionally rotate their Chiefs every two years or so. Some departments are giving consideration to breaking the traditional two-year term and going to longer consecutive one year terms if the current Chief is doing an exceptional job and if he (and his family) are willing to make the sacrifice.
Some departments are "recycling" former Chiefs who were good leaders.
If your department is lucky enough to have quality leadership at management levels, you are lucky and should start looking to the future. If you are not lucky in the leadership area, start looking at the resources in your department.
Each member of your department is a unique combination of qualities and abilities. A well-run organization needs responsible people as house officers, instructors, computer experts, safety officers, financially responsible people to handle the money, maintenance workers and well-motivated firefighters, who are the heart and soul of any successful operation.
Get to know your members; determine their strengths and weaknesses. Think of your members as a pool of talent and look for opportunities to utilize their talents. By choosing the right people, including them in activities and praising them for their accomplishments, you encourage these individuals and give them a feeling of satisfaction.
Panic by leaders on the fire ground is contagious and disastrous. Enthusiasm is also contagious, and it makes anything achievable.
Keep your eyes open for future leaders. I have just ordered three firefighting tactics books that are well-written and ideal for young line officers. I have identified three individuals in our county who seem to have many of the qualities needed for good leadership. I intend to give them copies of these books and explain to them that I feel that they have what it takes to be great leaders in the fire service.
It will be interesting to see how these future leaders turn out in the years ahead which, I am sure, will be even more demanding than today.
I wrote this "Mutual Aid" column for the June, 1993 issue of Hudson Valley Firefighter. Most of the information in that article is still relevant.
In the next to last paragraph of the article, I wrote about buying some books and giving them to young line officers who had great potential. One of those officers was Gregory Sikorsky. I gave him the book with a handwritten note from me on the first page of the book, saying that he had the potential for becoming a great fire fighter and leader -- and he did. Well, Greg did go on to do great things.! He took his love of fire fighting with the Hillcrest Volunteer Fire Company and joined the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). After several years, he was assigned to Squad Company 41. On 9/11/01 Greg was killed (murdered) while working with his company, leaving behind his wife and a son, who would have been three years old a few days after 9/11/01.
Greg has been on my mind recently because I found out that his son, Steven Sikorsky, now age 17, has joined the Blauvelt Fire Department and just enrolled in our New York State Fire Fighter I Program. Steven is honoring his father by stepping forward, and I know how proud his dad would be!