Fire service leadership: Learn the rules of life

CarolinaFireJournal - Ken Farmer
Ken Farmer
08/01/2012 -

We all live and die by rules. We have all had rules to live by since the day we were born in most cases. Don’t do this, do this, always do this — you know the list! As you grew up you learned and were taught more rules. Your parents had rules, your teacher had rules, the coach had rules, and your drill sergeant had rules. Now you are all grown up and you got more rules! Your company has pages and pages of rules, standard operating procedures and guidelines! Your spouse has a set of unwritten rules you better know by heart! You may not want to admit it but you have some rules too that you want everyone to follow to make you happy. Simply stated, we all got rules!


Some of the rules are good and some are hard to follow. We break some of them and we all bend many of them every day. We hopefully learn from them before we break them and cause pain and suffering. You may call them a moral compass to live by or just things to keep you out of trouble. Either way they serve a purpose in our lives.

On the farm, dad had lots of rules. There were ones about feeding the cows on time each day, mowing the yard once a week and doing what he told me to — the first time! Lots of rules and order to live by was a good thing for a kid like me. We all need specifics and directions until we have gotten enough seasoning and experience to know how to recognize the right thing the first time. Most children need rules and restrictions. It helps them learn and grow. If you have ever raised a child or managed people, you learn they will get into trouble naturally. It’s not that they are mean and hopeless but it’s just human nature until they learn.

One of dad’s rules was that I never go down to the pond on the farm without an adult and his permission. The rule made good sense to me. I enjoyed fishing and swimming there but figured I needed adult supervision most of the time anyway. I clearly remember when he built the pond and when he filled it with fish. It was built to let us water our crops when the weather did not bring the rain. Most farms had one and it was the place for fun and work. Ours was deep and muddy. It had lots of critters, snakes, frogs and a mix of fish. Dad’s rule was easy to follow most of the time.

However, one day life changed. I was about 10 years old and my “city cousins” came to visit the farm. After riding bikes, looking at the cows and seeing tractors and tobacco fields, they thought going down to the pond was a grand idea. They said we could go swimming and fishing and have a blast. They considered the pond to be a great adventure and full of new places to explore. As you can guess, no matter how hard I argued with them and explained the rules, they were bound and determined to go to the pond especially without adult supervision. In my simple young mind I had two choices. The first was to stay at the house and let the two fools drown in the pond and be forced to go to their funeral. The second was to go with them to the pond and do my best to keep them from killing themselves. After all, they were from the city and did not have a clue about snakes, frogs and ponds!

Yes, I made the ill fated decision to go and protect them. When we arrived back at the house, I got the whipping of my life from my father! No amount of explaining did any good so I stood there and took my punishment. It was painful on two levels. I could not understand why I was wrong for trying to do the right thing and I knew I had really disappointed my dad.

What I learned later from my father was that I paid the price for what my cousins did. He knew I was trying to protect them and he knew that I rolled over due to peer pressure. What he wanted me to learn was NOT to bow to such pressure. He wanted me to follow the rules regardless of what other people tried to get me to do. I learned that lesson well that day. Many times in life I have watched people try to take me and others down a potential path of ultimate death and destruction and I have to stand my ground and say no. I served as the Safety Officer in my fire department for a year and learned that being safe sometimes meant you went against the majority. It makes for tough times.

So what rules of life do you try to live by each day? Do you have them written down somewhere? Do you try to follow them? What is the source of your rules?

I watch the show “NCIS” on a regular basis. The show is about a group of investigators who work for the Navy Criminal Investigative Services and how they solve crimes and death cases related to military personnel. It’s always neat and has some unique uses of new technology and the show always has a unique twist. The main character on the show is the lead investigator, Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Gibbs is played by long time actor Mark Harmon with lots of gusto and a dark side from his past career as a Marine sniper. He is old school on many levels. Often during the show the different actors refer to “Gibbs Rules.” They often say “remember Rule #9” during the show. Unless you follow the show very closely you are at a loss to know which rule is which number.

With a little bit of research on the internet and some time to double check the data, I was able to find a list of Gibbs Rules. He has 30 rules for life and investigations. Look these over. Maybe there a few here you could add to your list!

Mark Harmon as Gibbs on NCIS (CBS).

Gibbs Rules

  • Never let your suspects stay together.
  • Always wear gloves at a crime scene.
  • Don’t believe what you are told. Double check.
  • The best way to keep a secret is to keep it to yourself.
  • Don’t waste good.
  • Never say you are sorry, it’s a sign of weakness.
  • Always be specific when you must lie.
  • Never take anything for granted.
  • Never go anywhere without a knife.
  • Never get personally involved in a case.
  • When the job is done, walk away.
  • Never date a co-worker.
  • Never, ever involve a lawyer.
  • Always work as a team.
  • If someone thinks they have the upper hand, break it.
  • It is better to seek forgiveness than ask permission.
  • Never, ever bother Gibbs during an interrogation.
  • Never mess with a Marine’s coffee ...if you want to live.
  • There are two ways to follow someone: they never notice you or you are the only thing they notice.
  • Always watch the watchers.
  • •If you feel like you are being played, you probably are.
  • Your case, your lead.
  • There is no such thing as a coincidence.
  • If it seems everyone is out to get you, they are.
  • Never accept an apology from someone who just sucker punched you.
  • Clean up the mess you made.
  • Sometimes, you are wrong.
  • Never trust a person who doesn’t trust his or her spouse.
  • Don’t work the system when you can work the people.
  • On my team working my cases, my people don’t bypass the chain of command.

The final question you need to ask yourself is “what are your rules for life?” They should give you guidance during tough times of how to make the “right” decision and not the popular decision. Rules come from your religion, your mistakes, your education, your parents and maybe your children as well other life experience. We all have rules in our lives that may or may not be written down. They say that ethics are just a combination of life’s lessons, your religious upbringing and what feels right in your gut. I think that is a good test of an ethical decision. If it just does not feel right, you probably should not be doing it! Take some time and write yours down. You might learn a lot about yourself and what is important in your life.

Ken Farmer is Section Chief, Leadership and Fire Risk Reduction at the National Fire Academy, United States Fire Administration in Maryland. Email him at [email protected].
Comments & Ratings

  9/27/2012 7:30:49 AM
Jay Gallagher 

Your artical "Learn the Rules of life 
Excellent artical ! Truly enjoyed reading it! Never thought about it till I read all of Gibbs' rules. Boy they sure can be used in the Fire Service as well!

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