Training >> Browse Articles >> Miscellaneous

Training >> Browse Articles >> Life and Leadership Lessons from the American Fire Service


The GPS to Real

The GPS to Real

By Michael West, FiredUp Training Services

Years ago I wrote an angry memo that eventually made it into a fire commentary in one of the fire journals. It was titled, “In Search of the Real Fire Department and you can read it on Firelink or here.

Over the years it’s turned into a full day class that we do on leadership and making a difference and inevitably, someone usually asks me… “So what other magic steps can we take to build the real fire department?” Well, I have lots of suggestions for helping out, but I have to warn you, it doesn’t come in the form of an instant pill or remedy.

First, it starts in your yard. My firehouses, just like yours, have problems. We have people just like yours. Good, bad, and ugly with a capital U. The good ones have always outnumbered the rest, everywhere I go. I believe that the attitude most firefighters are looking for starts with themselves in their own firehouse. Don’t wait till you are promoted to lead by example. Start right now. Here are a couple of rules that might help you start down the right path.

1.- 100% everyday. ‘Nuff said? Maybe not. I once had dinner with a fellow fire service instructor. He said something to me that flat pissed me off. He said, “Mike our firehouses have the same people in them. 20% are just like you and me. They eat, drink, and breathe this job. But 80% are not like us. You ask them to force the door, they will force the door. You ask them to stretch the line, they will stretch the line. You ask them to do anything, and they will do it, just like you taught them to do it. But come the end of shift, they will walk out the door and not think about the fire service until they return. They are into their church, or hobby, or their side job.” And then he said, “And that’s okay.” Well, like many of you I thought, “bull, that’s not okay. This is important, what we do.” But I have come to realize, it is okay with one very important caveat. Everyone must give 100% when they are there. When you are there, you must be there. Put down the cell phone, get off of e-bay, wake up from the nap and put out 100%. Everyday.

2.- Expect a fire everyday and prepare for it. I never want to go to a fire, come back to the firehouse, sulk in my office and think, “Another engine would have done that better.” The way to do our job well is to be ready. My office door at Fired Up says these words “Fortuna Favet Paratus.” Luck favors the prepared. It’s been said that the harder we try the luckier we get. It’s true. Get lucky, be prepared. I think I smell smoke in your first due…Are you ready?

3.- What you see here, what you hear here, stays here, when you leave here. I saw it on the wall of a friend’s firehouse and I thought, “Yep this is an issue everywhere.” I’m not big on all the miscellaneous tiny rules like moustache length and sock color. We have a good time in the station, we joke around a lot. That said the last thing I want to get from a boss is, “I hear you guys were out doing….whatever” This starts in house. We don’t gossip (much), we don’t beat on the Battalion Chief about stuff he can’t change anyway. It never makes anyone feel better and rarely helps the cause. There is too much back stabbing in the fire service, too much “I heard so and so did such and such…” cut the crap and stand up for your brother instead of knocking them down behind their back.

4.- Love your brothers and sisters more than you think they deserve. Loyalty starts with this idea. Loyalty is the number 2 leadership issue in our job. They have to know you are going all the way for them. You are loyal to them. You are committed to them, first. You know the difference between commitment and dedication, right? The chicken is dedicated, she lays eggs. The pig is committed, he gives bacon. You get the picture.

5. KTF- the FOOLS organization ( is well respected in many parts of the U.S. “Keep the faith” is one of their mottos. They do a great job of spreading the word about how great a job this is. We should all do the same. Get involved. Get the other members involved. Go to classes. Go to parties and all the social stuff that bank tellers and accountants will never understand. Each year my wife and I host a “bash for brotherhood”. It started as a BBQ for 20 and has grown into a great event each year. Do the same. The brotherhood needs each of us to step up and do our part. Don’t get down on the “new” face of the fire service. Keep the faith that our future is even brighter than our past.

6.- The last is maybe the hardest of all. Balls. Courage is the number 1 leadership issue in our job. It takes guts to not participate in the bitch sessions. It takes guts to not get wrapped up in the little stuff that we all have to deal with. You have to stand up and say, “I’m not bitching today, I’m training on hose pulling or ladder throwing, or whatever.” If it doesn’t start in your yard with you it might not start. Take responsibility for your fire service. Be the person you want your brothers and sisters to be. It takes courage to be a part of America’s Bravest, not just to walk into a burning building, but to do the right thing.

Be safe.