When you look at the fire service from the 30,000-foot level, it seems like we spend a great deal of time and energy focusing on the ways we're different from each other. I suppose it's normal for each of us to think we're special in some way or that our issues are the most important—and then we seek out others who feel the same way we do.
That's why we find groups like the Metro Fire Chiefs Association that focuses primarily on the challenges unique to providing fire protection in the largest cities or the IAFC's Volunteer and Combination Officers Section (VCOS) that focuses on the special issues of interest in volunteer and combination departments. Sometimes we divide ourselves geographically, such as the IAFC's divisions or the many state organizations. Sometimes we focus on particular issues we're passionate about, such as firefighter safety, firefighter health/wellness, fire prevention and sprinklers.
The fact is that there's a home out there for each of us, regardless of our particular location, interests or passions.
While this situation is good up to a point, I believe there's a danger in too much specialization within the fire service. While it's good to be able to focus on just a few things, there's also a danger that all of these special interests result in significant fractures in our fire service profession.
We see this often as we fight and squabble among ourselves about whose issue is more important or which issue should get more attention or which subject should get more funding. I'm sure that sometimes, from the outside, we resemble a big dysfunctional family and folks must wonder how we're able to get things done.
Sometimes, our inability to get along actually hurts us—particularly when we carry our internal disagreements to state capitals or the halls of the U.S. Congress. We often see policymakers who want to help scared away because we can't get our own act together.
The truth is that those of us in leadership positions in the fire service share much more in common than we differ. Although the size of our organizations may vary, our uniforms may look different and our language or accent may be different, the big issues the fire service faces are the same across the entire globe.
Talk to a fire chief from almost anywhere and you'll find common ground: handling personnel challenges, leading organizations in tough economic times, finding cost-effective ways to apply expensive technology to the fire service and searching for creative ways to staff and deploy resources, and the list goes on and on.
Sometimes, in our enthusiasm for hanging around with people who like the same stuff we do, we forget there are a lot of other fire service leaders who are facing some of the same issues we are. We could benefit—a lot—by stepping out of our comfort zones and spending time with folks who, on the surface, don't seem much like us.
Metros can learn from volunteers, Western fire chiefs can learn from New Englanders and safety zealots can learn from code geeks—if we just take the time and make the effort to reach out.
I feel sorry for those chiefs (and we all know them) who are so wrapped up and focused inside their departments that they're never seen outside. They don't attend regional, state or national meetings and conferences. They don't have any networks outside their own organization. And they're alone in facing the challenges of being fire service leaders.
That's where our professional associations come in. Whether it's a county chiefs association, a state chiefs association or the IAFC, there's much to be gained if we find the time and make the effort to get together with our colleagues for networking and education. Yes, it's a challenge, but I believe that it's impossible to be an effective fire service leader if we aren't engaging in some way with the greater fire service around us.
So, let's lift our focus off the pile of paper on our desks, make the time to get out of the office and spend some time with other fire service leaders outside our own departments. Learn all you can from those around you—and be willing to share all you know with others who may benefit from your knowledge and experience.
It's part of being a profession: developing and sharing the knowledge and experience that's unique to what we do. If you're not doing it, you're not being the fire service leader you could be, and your organization and you, yourself, will suffer for it. It's your job!
Chief William R. Metcalf, EFO, CFO
President and Chairman of the Board