In 1993, I became unemployed the day Bill Clinton was inaugurated as our 42nd president. For the previous three years, I had the honor of serving as a political appointee under the George H.W. Bush Administration. At the time, my wife and I had an 18-month-old baby, so I was naturally concerned about our finances even though my wife had a good-paying job.
Later in the year, I received a phone call from the Congressional Fire Services Institute asking if I would be interested in an opening as Director of Development. Although I lacked certain fundraising skills, I had a solid background in event planning. Up until that point, I had no experience or knowledge of the fire service. Somewhat desperate for a paycheck, I accepted the position, thinking I would stay with the organization until a better job offer came along.
A few offers did come along, but I rejected them because I quickly discovered that my passion was in public safety. The passion for my work remains as strong today as it did back in 1993. It took many years for me to gain trust in my abilities as an advocate and feel comfortable sitting at a table with the fire service leader to discuss national issues. But over time, I gained more confidence in my abilities and worked hard to gain the respect of my peers.
What concerns me and many of my peers today is finding the next generation of leaders to advocate for our firefighters and emergency service personnel at the local, state, and federal levels. Where are they, and how can we appeal to them to get involved?
At age 61, my career is entering the homestretch rather than entering the first turn. Many of my colleagues who mentored me and walked the halls of Congress with me have either retired or are also entering the home stretch. Together, we convinced Congress to establish the AFG and SAFER grant program and to fund various programs that advance the health and safety of our fire service personnel. We certainly achieved a lot, and I am very proud of what we accomplished.
We cannot expect the next generation of leaders to step forward and carry the torch until we, as current leaders, get them engaged. We need to groom them… mentor them… and LISTEN to them. We cannot expect them to adapt to our ways if those ways have become outdated. That is why we need to listen to them and be as adaptive to their ways as much as we want them to adapt to our ways. There has to be a middle ground.
And as part of our discussion, we need to remind future leaders what is at stake if no one is willing to step forward and lead. Who will advocate for the support of federal fire service programs? Who will advocate for fire safety education? Who will speak on behalf of career and volunteer firefighters at all levels of government?
At the end of our careers, we want to create legacies for ourselves, and who will remember our legacies without future leaders to preserve our legacies and build upon them?
Bill Webb has served as Executive Director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute since 1995. CFSI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institute designed to enhance congressional awareness about the concerns and needs of the fire and emergency services. As Executive Director, he works closely with members of Congress and fire service leaders to sustain support on Capitol Hill for programs and legislation that benefit our nation’s fire and emergency services. Before joining CFSI, Webb worked for the Firefighter Combat Challenge as the project manager for the competition. He currently serves as Vice Chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and is an honorary member of the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department, the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters’ Association and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 36.