Everyone’s A Teacher Part 2

 In Articles

Our previous article in this series discussed everyone’s opportunity to be a teacher through setting the example and mentoring, and how one person’s example can be such an effective method of imparting valuable principles.  Then there are those individuals that are given the opportunity and responsibility to become the formal trainer of departmental personnel.  During our combined 60+ years in the Fire Service, both of us have had the privilege of being Training Officers.  Yes, we did say privilege!  Of all those cumulative years spent at the Training Facility, some of our most rewarding memories are those of the new recruit classes we taught.  We had the opportunity to be the person that sets a new firefighter on the right course, both in learned skills and in departmental values.  More importantly, this also became an opportunity to “pay it forward”, to return to others what was given to us by our Training Officers when we started out.

As we are well aware, today it takes a lot of effort just to get on a hiring list for the Fire Department, so anyone who actually makes it to the Drill Tower as a new recruit has already displayed a lot of the qualities that are essential in this career.  For some recruits, talking about departmental values is nothing more than a review of what their parents taught and instilled in them as they were growing up.  For others, there might be one or two values that are new to them.  Regardless, our responsibility from that first day at the drill tower was to explain our organizational culture and values to them and to demonstrate those values to them in everything we did while they were in our charge.


Some components of our formal value system are;

  • Integrity is at the core of our careers.
  • Professionalism is the manner in which we carry out our work.
  • Cooperation is using our combined talents and resources to provide excellent service to our citizens and each other.
  • Vitality is the spirit behind all our efforts.
  • Sensitivity is the quality we bring to our interactions with others.

We asked our recruits to learn and “buy into” our organizational values, and most importantly, to come to an understanding of how these values made our Fire Department well respected in the community and throughout the state.


In every organization, there are definite informal values.  These are usually not written down in a “Mission Statement”, but consist of how people treat one another on a day-to-day basis and how they feel about their organization.  It was also our responsibility to expose new personnel to these informal values, as being aware of these concepts would not only help them fit in, but would also help to set their foundation over the next 30+ years.  Informal values might include statements like:

  • There is more to this job than just showing up.
  • Never forget why you are here.
  • Bring your “A” game to work everyday.
  • Teamwork is how we succeed.
  • This is the best job in the world.

These statements indicate that they should come to work every day striving to be the very best at what they do.  By sharing this important information with the recruits, we let them know that these values are as much a foundation of our operational effectiveness as the formal values we discussed.

One of the other things we made new recruits aware of is that their reputation starts from day one, that they are developing that reputation even as they go through the Drill Tower.    And as often as not, that description will stay with you your entire career, even when you promote.


To effectively evaluate your own organization, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your organization have written values or a formal mission statement?
  • Do you know what they are?
  • Do you share the importance of these values with your new members?
  • Do you take the time to also discuss the informal values of your organization?
  • Most importantly, do you practice those values everyday?

In the last article, we talked about how examples, both good and bad, can help us learn important lessons.  During a seminar, some Firefighters were openly complaining about their Department.  They felt they had no direction from the top and the idea of formal values was lost on their leaders.  Due to this lack of leadership, they had formed some pretty negative “informal values” about their organization and were not shy about voicing them.  They openly admitted suggesting to new recruits that they should continue testing in order to get hired elsewhere!  What message does that send to new, highly motivated firefighters that have worked hard for this opportunity.  What does it do to their attitudes toward the people they work for and their effectiveness at work everyday?  Would you want to work there?


Along with our skills, knowledge and experience, what makes the biggest impact on people is how we act.  We are the message, and our actions speak louder than words, whether it’s to our fellow firefighters or the public we protect.  Have you ever heard the saying, “I can’t hear what you are saying because your actions are so loud.” We all need to ask ourselves every once in a while, “What are my actions saying?” Are we constantly representing the values of our organization, and more importantly, are we living up to the reputation that thousands of firefighters unselfishly created for us before we ever got hired?

At graduations, we would explain to new firefighters as they received their badge that at this point, they had done very little to deserve the respect that the badge and uniform would automatically bring them.  That price had been paid by all those Firefighters that came before them.  But it was now their responsibility to uphold the values and the reputation others had paid so dearly for, some with their lives.  It was now their responsibility to add to that reputation, to live up to the values of the Fire Service and to work everyday to add to our profession’s high esteem.


We’ve discussed some of the values that are important to an organization, but how do we effectively get the message across?  What are the traits and qualities that allow us to be successful?  One characteristic of a good teacher is technical competence. The fire service has become so specialized with paramedics, hazardous material teams, urban search and rescue operations and fire prevention activities, that training in firefighter basic skills can drop off to dangerous levels.  Fire Chiefs, department training officers and company officers are pulled in so many directions that may not have sufficient time to dedicate to fire fighting and firefighter survival training.  The unfortunate result can be diminished technical competence. Since fire fighting is a high risk, low frequency activity, the need for highly competent officers and firefighters is essential.


Let’s discuss four different areas of competence and incompetence:

  • Unconscious Incompetence – People who don’t know and what they don’t know!  Obviously, this is a dangerous place to be and is often described as “ignorance is bliss”!
  • Conscious Incompetence – People know that they have some skill deficit they have to make up. An example would be an engineer or apparatus driver that is assigned to an apparatus that they are not familiar with.  That person would immediately take steps to learn every aspect of the apparatus and the district.
  • Conscious Competence – When a person has a sense of mastery of craft.  You have all seen examples of this in your careers.  A crew responds to an incident demonstrating effectiveness and efficiency. They arrive at an incident, perform their function and get back in service for the next emergency.  Hopefully, this is the example you see most of the time at your department.
  • Unconscious Competence – When a person is so good at something it appears to require little or no effort.  A good example of this is someone like Michael Jordan.  He is so competent at his craft that he can make the most difficult moves look effortless, and do this while competing against the best basketball players in the world.

So where are you, the members of your crew and the leadership of your department in this technical competency rating system? What is the training philosophy formalized and practiced by your organization? Do you train in basic fire fighting skills? Are you staying up with all the changes that technology has brought into our world?  Do you research new techniques and methods?  Do you have the ability to proactively discuss making changes in your organization to accommodate our changing world without being offensive?

Today’s successful fire service leaders should all share a commitment to constantly improve.  They need to realize that in today’s fast paced world, if you are not getting better, you are probably falling behind. Meaningful training is the number one thing that makes any organization better.  Teach and mentor your people, those you work with, those you supervise and especially those who may supervise you!  In the organization the authors worked for, the bulk of the really good ideas regarding change and adaptation came from the folks that were responding to calls everyday.  They have a lot to offer.  Remember, everyone’s a teacher regardless of rank, so that means all of us!