I can’t begin to name all the people who have shared their knowledge with me over the years. I have probably mentioned a time or two that I was fortunate to have been given an early education in the “family business”. While I have never fought a fire with my father nor my grandfather, I have heard the stories, and in fact, a few of the firefighters who have fought fire for both of them actually moved to Hilton Head Island and fought fire for me. I joked with one of our family friends who fit this description that he had the “honor of being a subordinate to three generations of the Mayers family”. If you can’t take that kind of love in a firehouse, you are doomed.
At every opportunity, I formalized my training by attending as many fire schools as possible with some of the finest firefighters in the nation. I have had the chance to talk HAZMAT over beers with Greg Noll, and likewise talk Rescue with the late, great Chief Ray Downey. As a young officer I got to hang out with Chief Brunacini for the day when he was teaching on the Island. And later in my career, I have had the amazing honor of working side by side as a committee officer with Carl Goodson, one of the finest leaders I have ever met. I have had many other, lesser known, but quite inspirational and educated instructors and mentors along the line. I have also worked directly for and with chiefs of local departments who continue to share their immense knowledge and insight with me.
Of all of these, however, until I met Chief Harry Diezel, who at the time was the Chief of the Virginia Beach Fire Department, I didn’t really have a vision of what my future in the fire service would be. What’s funny about it is that he was able to inspire a young officer candidate in sixteen hours of a seminar, by exposing to him to the potential of emergency services from an entirely different model than ever envisioned.
I have always had a strong work ethic and I thought I was a decent officer. While was insistent on my crew being well prepared and well trained, in my early years as a company officer, my battles with management were often visible, bloody, and engaged head-on with no regard to the bigger picture. Think “irresistible force meets immovable object”. I knew I was good, I had swagger, and I had total confidence. I was moving up the food chain rapidly because I was a John Wayne, no-nonsense, this-is-the-way-to-do-it kind of officer and in the ‘80’s, this was the personification of the model company officer.
As you also might have suspected, in the ‘80’s the notion of taxpayers as “customers” in the fire service was not widely accepted. In fact, it was meeting pretty serious resistance, as it still does in certain areas. I was no exception to the norm. When it came to dealing with the public, I enjoyed delivering the emergency service, but as far as I was concerned, if you weren’t with us, you were against us. After all, as taxpayers, you don’t have a choice in how emergency services are provided, do you? If an issue came up in regard to providing fire protection, our take was, “Just listen to us, we know what we are doing, and we’ll tell you how to do it correctly”.
So when I had a chance to sit in a room over two days with Chief Diezel and learn about “paradigms” (BEFORE they became a cheap buzzword) and to learn about thinking with new perspective (again, before “outside the box” became clichéd), it was revolutionary. When we talked about political strategy, it was fresh air and realization of a whole new approach toward selling service delivery. When he suggested we read (and understand) “The Art of War”, not as a study in warcraft but as a guide for strategic living, it was before anyone else was suggesting any of these options.
Looking back on it, the things we talked about that weekend were shown to us as being “fresh” ideas ten and even twenty years later. In some communities, when I come in and discuss a “vision for emergency services”, sometimes I get blank stares. When I ask an officer candidate in another department what he or she sees in the future of emergency services, and they answer, “New trucks” or “more people”, I’m wondering why someone hasn’t tried to get them to see that our industry is affected globally, not just at city hall.
Harry got at least this one officer to embrace change, to accept that there might be alternatives to what we perceived as being the sole answer, and gave me the spark to explore and understand. When I had the veil of ignorance lifted, it was like an entirely new beginning to my career. I took classes on psychology and sociology to better understand the people both in the organization and in the community that I would have to motivate. I enrolled in programs that were sponsored by the chamber of commerce and attended seminars offered to private businesses, and began to serve on boards and panels. I realized in the ‘80’s that networking was a key element in political survival and marketing your organization wasn’t a bad thing.
Of all things, Chief Diezel got me to see that people do have a choice. They may not have the ability to decide what agency comes when they call for help, but they have a choice in who is employed in that agency. They also have a say in whether or not you get the apparatus and tools for the job, the fire stations to put the apparatus and tools in, and whether or not you get people to put on those resources. These people also have the ability to put people in office who support you, and they can put people in office who will make your life miserable.
I have resolved to share this wealth with others through Firehouse Zen. I have a vision of emergency services reborn, of revolutionary change in the way we operate and in the way that we engage the public to minimize injury and loss. There are so many “leaders” out there who still have that veil over their eyes and have never understood the potential of a fully engaged organization. Until they do, their department is condemned to being ordinary and marginal. If there’s anything in this world I don’t want to be, it’s ordinary and marginal.
Learn to really be at the front of the pack and learn how to guide and push toward a goal of really effective service delivery. More importantly, though, find someone who needs guidance, some young officer, and mentor them. Give them the gift of vision and foresight and help them to prepare for all of the changes that will surely come in next generations. Nothing you have gained is worth a cent if you don’t share it with others.
Thanks, Chief Diezel, for unwittingly inspiring me. It was a great weekend.