We the Fire Service

We the fire service have a debt of gratitude. One generation shall praise your works to another, and shall declare greatness of your mighty acts, learning from failures and mistakes.


I know that as a fire service member I owe a large debt of gratitude to many great people who have paved the way for others like me to have the opportunities we currently have.

I know that as a fire service member I owe a large debt of gratitude to many great people who have paved the way for others like me to have the opportunities we currently have. There have been many fine brothers and sisters who have given their hearts and souls to the fire service, working tirelessly to make it better, stronger and safer. For all of you whom have paid this price and contributed “We the Fire Service” say, “Thank You!”

I just want to say that these great folks mentioned above were and are still the best of the best when it comes to mentoring. So what is going on today? To cut to the chase “We the Fire Service” have lost the art of mentoring. It only takes one generation to lose all that we know and have learned from our great heritage. Do we really want to do that? I say NO! So, what are WE going to do about it?

Those officers and fire service leaders who are disgruntled, negative, always blaming someone else, never sharing, just hanging out, waiting on retirement or a pay check need to get off your duffs and start being officers, resign your positions or retire. Simply put —lead, follow or get out of the way! As we quickly approach a time when much of the fire service’s legacy, knowledge and experience will be retiring, we are destined to face the loss of great leadership. This could prove to be a tragedy for our profession or we can make it a positive benchmark. A lot is going to depend upon several generations working closely together, the baby boomers and the generation Y and X coming together and realizing that the future belongs to those who prepare. For years I seen and taught under those words. You see the slogan, “The Future Belongs to Those Who Prepare For It” posted on the training class room wall of the Henderson, North Carolina, fire department.

I just recently listened as Chief Steve Cordell expressed those very words to several youthful firefighters and officers that were in that classroom, attending one of the courses I was teaching there. As a chief fire officer, an instructor and a previous member of that department, it always struck me as an encouragement to continue to push to make a difference. Often times I personally struggled with just what that slogan really was saying. Well it is presently very clear what it means — it is time that we prepare for our future and start paying off that debt of gratitude and start giving back to the next generation or they won’t have anything to praise us about. Our efforts of paying it forward must be one of tireless efforts, one, which we must embark on with extreme passion and pride of what the fire service is understanding what it truly means to the fire service, the people we serve and communities we serve in.

We the fire service have a heritage of being just that, the fire service. So, where am I going with this? We have got to focus on our heritage in a two-facet approach. The first facet is we have got to remember where we came from and what is important about the history of the fire service. We can NEVER forget the major events like Kingman, Arizona, Hackensack, New Jersey, New York City Fathers Day fire and the events of September 11, 2001. Nor should we forget our recruit academy, our first fire, our first cut job our first day at the fire house, the great family events and even the sadness stricken times like funerals for a lost brother or sister in the line of duty. However, we also must focus on a more serious issue, the fact that the fire service has a heritage of not learning or wanting to learn from the fire service mistakes. We know what the causes of line of duty deaths are. There is a lot of effort being placed on programs that address this by folks like Ron Siarnicki from the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) to ensure “Everyone Goes Home.”  But, when I look at the same repeated mistakes that our fire service makes over and over again and when firefighters refuse to read and/or study why these occurred, it appalls me to no end. We have the answers in front of us! But, when leaders don’t want to address the problems and firefighters fight against these necessary safety and cultural changes, we have serious issues in our family heritage.

As I write this piece there are departments changing their response policies, tactical operational guidelines and others who are conducting research for a safer fire service. I am proud that we are learning from tremendously sad events and vicariously from others. Here is the reality check — there are many others across the nation in this great business that we call the fire service that think that this type of response or progressive way of thinking is crazy and that we are some how doing something wrong. This is not an isolated issue; it is embedded in the culture from coast to coast. As officers and fire service leaders we must learn from our mistakes and pass them along to the next generation so we don’t keep repeating history.

We the fire service have a burden of responsibility — a responsibility to leave the service better than we inherited it. This means we have to learn from our own and other’s mistakes. We must set a course of direction that has safety as the focus. This will mean that many cultures, values, opinions and beliefs will have to be changed or better yet educated. Leaders must be diligent in their efforts working tirelessly to accomplish the vision exhausting all means for a successful journey. Never lose faith or lower the vision! Falling short of the vision is better than setting one low and making it. If leaders will follow the vision with heart-felt desire, you will win and the fire service will be better for it.

To sum it all up you must keep the vision and keep from getting distracted. To keep the vision you must understand that it will require personal sacrifices and risks to be taken. In making sacrifices and taking risks we often feel like we are out on a limb. Well guess what, you are! But if we don’t take chances you most likely will not keep focused on what is important, the vision you have set as a leader. These distractions that come up often pull even the best leaders off of the vision. When we keep our vision, we often receive harsh criticism. But remember, DO NOT compromise for what seems easier nor be discouraged by the criticism. STAY ON THE WALL!

So what is my responsibility you ask?

We the Fire Service
Have to Stay Informed

This means that you have to be well traveled. Part of the problem we have in the fire service is that of the old culture. That is folks don’t want to learn what happened elsewhere, they think that it doesn’t apply to them. Well the same problems and issues are across the nation both in rural small volunteer fire departments to large metropolitan departments. Most fire service members have no clue what is going on in the federal, state or local government that will affect them. We are slow as a profession to accept anything from the outside world. The most under used resource in the fire service is the National Fire Academy (NFA). If folks haven’t noticed, most fire chief job advertisements require the candidate be a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program from the NFA. I recently had a chief officer tell me that he had spoken to a few people and they said the NFA was over rated. Well, I guess those folks are like a lot of others — NOT INFORMED!

We the Fire Service
Must Get Involved

We must unite the entire fire service for the common goals. To do this we need fire service leaders to step up and take an active role in fire service organizations. One of the best ways to make change to the culture is through training. A great organization to get involved with if you like training is the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI). By the way, if you are an officer let me remind you are an instructor, whether certified or not, you still have an obligation to teach. Taking this to another focus, just how many of you are really involved in your department? Leading and making efforts to make change or are you sitting around on your hands looking to see who else is going to do it saying, “That’s not my job”? Well guess what, if you are doing this, it is your job as a fire service member and especially as an officer.

We the Fire Service Have to Humble Ourselves and Serve Others

Our job is to serve our customers both internal and external any way possible. President Kennedy in his campaign said, “Ask not what the country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country.” I think it is time we as fire service leaders and members followed this. I am saying to you, “Ask not what your department or the fire service can do for you, but what you can do for your department and the fire service.”

This really drives me to focus on the topic “What Do These Bugles Really Mean?” We as leaders today will face the end of our careers. Many of my mentors are at that point currently. However, the leadership lessons they can still share are countless. Thank God that these folks took an interest in us, the leaders of the current fire service, when we were youthful firefighters and officers. The future of the fire service is in your hands. Will you be satisfied with mediocrity and status quo saying, “well this is just the way it is here” or will you take the proactive approach and realize that today’s fire service has changed, change is inevitable and if we don’t change we die on the vine a slow death before we even know it.

We the fire service — are you truly a part of this great profession. What is your fire service profile? Are you a shiner, whiner or recliner? What are you going to do to make a difference?

Douglas Cline is a 32-year veteran and student of the Fire Service serving as Assistant Chief of Operations with Horry County Fire Rescue. Cline, a former Fire Chief, is a North Carolina Level II Fire Instructor, National Fire Academy Instructor and an EMT-Paramedic instructor for the North Carolina Office of Emergency Medical Services. Chief Cline is President of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) and the Immediate Past President of the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs (SEAFC).

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