Executive Officer Leadership: Be Respectful, but Be Different

Uber is a transportation network company that promotes ride sharing in the taxi industry; it enables individuals to hail a vehicle using smart phones. Since the app appeared in June 2010, competition in this industry has led to falling prices for traditional cab rides and has decreased the overall demand for traditional cabs. This type of changing technology impacts service, market and customers to provide a similar outcome but faster, cheaper and maybe more convenient.

The fire service faces these same types of technologies and innovations that will impact our profession, but are we willing to embrace these and give them a try? We’ve all heard the saying throughout our careers, “100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.”

Does this stymie some of our thinking? Is this idea so embraced as to limit innovation and creativity in our profession?

I’ve had incredible opportunities over my fire service career to be coached and mentored by some extremely talented, intelligent professionals. They have provided understanding and guidance on the importance of the fire service’s history. More importantly, they gave me an understanding of the challenges and sacrifices the men and women before us made to provide the resources and options we have today.

As Edmund Burke said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” That being said, be different. Try different innovations, be creative and don’t be afraid to fail.

There are so many talented firefighters with great ideas. As leaders in the fire service, we need to provide them the platform and forums to experiment. Our profession will be continually challenged by external stakeholders and organizations to continually justify and rationalize our actions. Don’t let them dictate your course of action; let that be driven internally by your personnel.

A recruit training program I’m involved with recently tried a different technique with recruit firefighters being taught the aerial climb. During this training, each student must complete the aerial climb twice. The first climb is 75 feet and the second is 100 feet, both at a 65- to 70-degree angle, wearing full PPE.

When we were evaluating the safety of this evolution and the techniques to complete the requirement, it was decided that all students would complete this skill while wearing a class II harness tied off on a belay system.

This was different. It was against the norm. But given the increase in safety perspective during this controlled environment, the limited exposure many of the recruits had on climbing ground and aerial ladders, and that it didn’t change the way the technique of climbing the aerial was completed, it was implemented into the program.

It received mixed reviews from both students and staff, and we continued to educate and talk with individuals about the rationale for this procedure. Today, it has become a more-accepted practice for our program and other programs around the region. As I have told many people, “Learn from my mistakes because there have been many.”

This was one area the program was willing to take the risk and be different in an effort to minimize the potential of making mistakes during this training evolution and to prevent a tragic outcome as outlined in the NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Report-F2012-01 released in June 2012.

This is just one example, but as a profession, we need to be more accepting and open to some different ideas about how we conduct all operational and administrative procedures. Whether it’s new methods of transitional fire attack or the way we develop vehicle specifications, deploy personnel and apparatus, or conduct training, don’t be afraid to experiment with new methods.

They may work or they may not. If they don’t work, reevaluate and move forward. We certainly have the talent in our profession to excel at all of this and not become captive to a reactionary measure from another source.

What is the next “Uber” for the fire service? Don’t let change be thrust upon us by outside factors; let it be driven by us and our personnel. Be respectful of what we’ve learned in the past, but don’t be afraid to be different—and keep the fire service strong for the future generations.

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