Every now and then, we need a reminder about the sheer impact that comes from this job. For many of us, the fire service weaves itself into our DNA, and in many ways, a lot of us "grow up" on the fire department. While not necessarily defining our lives, this job definitely occupies essential chapters of our life's story and influences the person we are in many tangible and intangible ways. In a recent speaking engagement, I had the opportunity to talk to fire protection engineering students at a university and impart thoughts and advice that might come in handy during their careers. When I get the chance to visit with university students, I always find the fertile minds of this age group to be an enriching experience for me.
I could have made this speaking engagement a simple endeavor. Still, I decided to put extra effort into thinking about the event from my perspective, reaching out to a few colleagues, and sharing their lessons. Inventorying the various tidbits of information from my friends (read: other fire chiefs) reminded me how this job changes a person over time and the accumulated stress of leadership on a person. I am sure other professions influence the humans that occupy those positions, but I imagine that few compare to the fire service's impact on people who undertake leadership roles.
Today's fire service leaders face an ever-changing and complex environment to make decisions that are reinforced with social media, a demanding citizenry, and reputation scrutiny like we've never navigated. Further complicating the fire service leadership environment is the subjective but seemingly commonplace sense that fewer firefighters are interested in serving in leadership roles as they promote and progress in their careers.
While I know this may vary from department to department, it seems to permeate plenty of departments.
We have placed well-deserved attention on the mental impacts of the job for the rank and file members of our departments. However, I would challenge all of us to consider the gap at the top of our organizations. I am happy to report that there is seemingly no shortage of articles and resources on firefighters' mental stress, health, and well-being. Even with these resources, I am not suggesting that this topic in our industry is successfully handled. It is worth celebrating the success associated with the fact that discussing firefighter mental issues are less taboo than ever before, however we still have work to do. If we, however, ensure we have leadership stability in our profession, we need to recognize that taking care of our chief officers' mental health must also be a priority.
A mentor of mine once reflected that most successful fire chiefs "walk with a limp." This characterization of a fire chief's career was intended to point out that leadership is challenging and that even fire chiefs who are successful will accumulate battle scars associated with the stress and impact of the job. I've enjoyed my career as chief, but I have witnessed other chiefs who have endured significant stress, anxiety, and trauma caused by the various pressures of being a chief officer. As John Maxwell says, "It is lonely at the top, so you better know why you are there."
When dedicated fire chiefs encounter difficult situations, what resources and help do we really have for those contemporaries who are engaged in the struggle?
The cry to take care of our leaders' mental health is easy to say but sometimes difficult to translate into action. In the spirit of the founding father of the American fire service, Ben Franklin, I think it is time we encourage new fire service leaders to prioritize forming their own Junto Clubs to help. Historically, a Junto Club refers to a small group of individuals, first established by Franklin in Philadelphia, who gathered to provide trust and the "mutual improvement" of one another. The members pledged respect to one another and acted as honest confidants to one another.
Without a doubt, many of us already have something of an informal Junto Club in our lives. Maybe it is time to recognize the loneliness and difficulty of leadership and actively encourage personal Junto Clubs to help us along the way. Could we positively impact the decisions and mental health of fire chiefs by formalizing a group for honest counsel and trust? I think so. As we advance, we should communicate with new chiefs and inspire them to use their respective "honeymoon" periods to form their support network, in and out of the fire service. The long-term future should involve awareness of long-term leadership stress and proven strategies to help chiefs cope and manage.
Whatever the specific answer is to help take care of our leaders, it will come in some form of us taking care of each other. Working for the fire department in any capacity is one of the few jobs left that is still fun and produces a sincere feeling of satisfaction. As I told those university students, it is essential to take care of yourself throughout a career and not let the drama of the day weigh you down. Let's pledge to take care of each other, participate in a Junto when a colleague needs some advice, and ensure our careers end with as few "limps" as possible.
Tom Jenkins serves as the fire chief for the City of Rogers, Arkansas, a position he has held since 2009. He is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Follow him on Twitter @tomcjenkins