I can vividly remember during the early days of my fire service career looking at the personnel that were at the midpoint of their career and thinking that they were really “up there” in terms of both their career tenure and — dare I say it — also in their age. Now that I am past that point in my career and also my age; and friends of mine are retiring from the fire service at the end of a full career, I realize now more than ever the need for preparing our next generation of leaders in the hazmat community so that the “torch” of leadership can continue to burn.
Leadership by Example
The first trait that one usually thinks of when envisioning a competent leader is leadership by example. I consider leading by example to be exemplified by a leader that will not ask their team members to do anything that he or she would not do themselves. For example, leaders should not be afraid to suit up in Level A Chemical Protective clothing during training evolutions to show team members that the “old man” can still perform the hands-on skills that are essential in the hazmat hot zone. Team members will then also know that when they are in Level A Chemical Protective clothing on a hot summer day that you have “been there and done that” and you realize exactly what they are going through. Leading by example is the framework upon which credibility and trust is built between leaders and team personnel.
Another trait that is present in competent hazmat team leaders is the ability to remain calm under pressure. One of my mentors in the hazmat community personified such “calmness under fire” in that at the worst incidents imaginable when it seemed to others that the world was coming to an end, his tone of voice and demeanor would be just the same as if carrying on a routine conversation at the fire station. If a leader is calm under fire, then team personnel are more likely to do the same and their level of trust in their leader is less likely to wane. The recognition of the need for remaining calm in times of stress has been valued for years, as witnessed in a portion of a poem by Rudyard Kipling entitled “If” that summarizes a father’s advice to his son. The poem was read at every Eagle Scout ceremony presided over by a former scoutmaster of mine and has served as useful advice not only in the fire service, but in life in general. The passage states “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you ... yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, and — which is more — you’ll be a man, my son.”
Develop Leaders Within Our Teams
As leaders in the hazmat community, we should also try to develop leaders within our teams. Leaders can derive their leadership through formal means — e.g. by position, title, and/or rank — and/or through informal means, such as general recognition as a leader by other team members. I witnessed such informal leadership in the fire service at an early age, as Curtis Clapp (my Dad) helped found the volunteer fire department where I grew up and was a volunteer firefighter for over 30 years. Although he served for a period of time in positions such as assistant chief, I can recall vividly that even when he was at the rank of firefighter that other personnel valued his opinion and often relied on him for guidance in making important decisions. While formal leadership is necessary, we should always strive to also cultivate and enable those personnel that derive leadership status through informal means as often times those leaders are as effective — and sometimes are more effective — in motivating and mentoring team members than those in formal leadership roles.
Hazmat Training Can Be Fun
We can all recall the usual reaction to the announcement that hazmat training is occurring on our shift day, which usually cannot be printed here due to the nature of the language used. In all seriousness, hazmat training can, and should be, fun. If a class or training evolution is enjoyable to the greatest extent possible, we tend to learn more about the content taught and retain that same content for a greater length of time than if we were participating in a training session that was pure drudgery. If we are conducting a lengthy in-classroom training session, we can interject hands-on elements to break the monotony. We can also utilize competitions to foster good-natured rivalries and encourage personnel to function at the highest level possible. Hazmat knowledge quizzes in a classroom setting or practical evolution competitions in the hands-on arena involving multiple skills stations are both favorites of personnel that make the learning process more bearable by engaging our Type A personality competitive instincts. An additional thought on hazmat training is evidenced by another one of my mentors in my hazmat career, who has carried on the motto of his mentor as directed towards hazmat training — namely that any time that you learn something in the field of hazmat, bring it back and share it with all on your team. In some professions it is stated that knowledge is power. In our profession, knowledge means life — the saving of someone else’s life or even our very own.
Keep Enthusiasm High
The preceding segment serves as a great transition to the next element in our leadership and management discussion, namely ensuring that our enthusiasm and the enthusiasm of our team members does not decline. To this day, I can remember the morning I arrived at Greensboro Fire Station 4 for my first shift on the line back in February of 1997 after 17 weeks — which seemed like a long time back then — of recruit training. I can remember the first call I rode that day, my first structure fire that followed, and other specific details of that time frame like they were yesterday; and also how excited I was to be there doing the job that I love. Although it is sometimes tough to do so over a 30-year career, we should strive to arrive on duty with that same level of enthusiasm that we did on our first day on the job. Maintaining the enthusiasm of our hazmat team members for the hazmat discipline is just the same. We should determine what motivates our personnel and strive to keep that motivational fire burning as much as possible. Mixing in personnel that are new to the discipline of hazmat and thus have that wide-eyed enthusiasm with some of our veteran personnel in which that fire may be flickering a little bit may be just the impetus needed to raise motivational levels by gaining buy-in and participation from all.
In expanding on the previous thought of mixing new with veteran personnel on our hazmat team, we should also be cognizant of those personnel just entering the field of hazmat response as members of our team, as often they have not even attended the required training enabling them to be certified as Hazmat Technicians. We can involve them in training situations in which it is safe to do so by giving them some “suit time” in a controlled environment, letting them become familiar with product control techniques and air monitoring; and even indoctrinating them into at least a basic knowledge of the world of the chemistry of hazardous materials. By doing so, we can give our new personnel a taste of what the Chemistry of Hazmat and Hazmat Technician classes are like so that we set them up for success. We can also realize a byproduct of such training in letting the veterans on our team provide the training to renew their appreciation of and enthusiasm for the discipline of hazmat response.
Our final area of discussion will be that of one of the finest traits of a leader, which is that of the ability to let our personnel reach their full potential by eliminating micromanagement to the greatest extent possible. When we enable our personnel by delegating tasks or even entire projects to them, we give them a sense of pride and responsibility that shows our trust towards them and lets them build their own supervisory and managerial “toolbox” through direct experience. It is often hard for team leaders and others with managerial responsibilities to “let go” of their direct control of tasks and projects — especially when first placed in a supervisory or managerial role. However, by doing so in a manner that is commensurate with the skills and abilities of those performing the functions it results in a win-win situation in terms of productivity and team unity. You will in addition be undoubtedly surprised by how well your personnel — no matter what stage of their career they are in — will perform. As I am now closer to the end of my career than the beginning, it also has become clearly evident to me that although we would like to think that our time “on the job” is endless, we should prepare the next generation to take our place in the hazmat community so that as we advance and, perish the thought, eventually retire, we can rest assured that our discipline is in great hands as we pass the torch of leadership along.
Oftentimes the terms “leadership” and “management” are discussed in fairly nebulous and subjective terms. In this discussion, we have hopefully shed some objective light on the topic of hazmat team leadership and management and how we can ensure that our next generation of leaders in the field is primed and ready to handle the tasks set before them. Although we often gravitate to the more technical side of things in hazmat response, it is beneficial to revisit the less technical leadership and management points discussed above to create a lasting legacy for those that follow as we continue to press forward in our own careers and lives, which hopefully will include many more fire service and hazmat response filled years. As always, stay safe out there and be sure to visit the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders website at www.nchazmat.com.
Glenn Clapp is a past president of the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders; and is the emergency manager for the City of High Point and a safety officer for the High Point Fire Department with the rank of Battalion Chief. He has almost 20 years of fire service and emergency management experience and is a Technician-Level Hazmat Instructor; and is a Certified Hazardous Materials Manager and Certified Fire Protection Specialist.