By Larry Conley
Professional Readiness is a mandatory trait for a successful firefighter. Successful firefighters, fire crews, and fire departments constantly feed their state of readiness. When an emergency hits, their professional preparation pays off. As emergency professionals, we respond to 911 calls. Citizens only call emergency professionals when there is an emergency. We arrive to mitigate the circumstance. The average citizen expects us to arrive with a high level of professional readiness. Being in a state of emergency arriving to handle an emergency can be a disaster for all involved. If we show up time and time again, unprepared, lives and property can be lost. In addition, the community's confidence in the team and the department will erode. Operating in a professional state of emergency is, therefore, unacceptable. The beauty of our profession is that firefighters are driven to be the best. This drive to be the best, to serve our citizens, is in our professional DNA. The public expects first responders to be ready. Firefighters are most effective for themselves and the public when they are in a state of readiness.
The best way to shorten your career as a firefighter is to constantly operate in a professional state of emergency. This seems painfully obvious, but developing this personal state of emergency is an insidious process. There is a huge difference between responding to 911 calls and living a 911 lifestyle. It’s a matter of time before the way we manage our personal priorities collides with the priorities of the job. Finances, relationships, role, and so on can all be challenging for a person in any profession. Firefighters are no different. The issue with high-risk professions is that the slightest distraction can have dire consequences.
Living in the state of emergency often gives the illusion that personal situations are being handled. This fallacy breaks down the fabric of who we are. Abuse can be played out in different ways. Alcohol abuse, spousal abuse, financial mismanagement, and lack of regard for one’s health are some examples. Self-talk tells us that being an invincible firefighter will help us overcome. We often feel that the same skill needed to save others professionally will help save us personally. This thinking promotes a temporary fix to a chronic issue. Younger firefighters have a greater problem digesting this. Being young, we feel more invincible. Seasoned firefighters figure they will find a way to cure chronic issues. Firefighters who don’t learn to properly exercise personal readiness will feel the emptiness of the gap between who they are and who they can be.
The state of emergency was never supposed to be a place of permanent residence. We all have times in our lives where the urgent needs immediate attention. Chronic mismanagement of personal readiness detrimentally affects performance. This position automatically reduces a person’s value to the team. The conflict between compromised personal readiness and solid professional readiness makes it difficult to be the best for the public we serve.
Years ago, I worked with a firefighter who had relationship issues with his wife. This team member would be on the phone, seemingly, for hours. They would argue and yell. He was visibly shaken by their exchanges. It was very hard for him to adjust when the bell hit. Where do you think his mind was? How prepared was he to deal with the current emergency? Was he able to give the call 100 percent? The answer is an easy no.
Looking at someone else’s situation, it is easy to determine the right answer. It is not easy to recognize these same challenges in ourselves. Eventually, this firefighter’s situation led to divorce and loss of his job. There are all kinds of examples. Some firefighters are fired for failing the drug test. Some quit because of chronic money mismanagement. They are forced to quit early to cash in their pension. None of us can predict the future. I’m not suggesting emergencies don’t happen. All of us have experienced our best laid plans being destroyed in an instant. However, in the normal course of life, we usually find that our emergencies are self-imposed. When a bona fide emergency happens, we are more devastated than necessary. The person who fares better is the one more fortified and disciplined. Doctors often say that a person in excellent health before being hospitalized recovers faster. The person in poor health before hospitalization has a longer road to recovery. Readiness affects recovery.
Firefighter readiness doesn’t start when you arrive at the firehouse. It starts before, during, and after your shift. Personal readiness is a state of mind. This principle, when internalized, will convict you to move from the state of emergency to the state of readiness. Let’s explore how much more productive and fulfilling the state of readiness can be.
Welcome to the state of readiness. I hope you become a lifelong resident. I constantly practice the EMPOWER model to keep my personal leadership skills sharp: End vision, Mutual victory, Proactive, Organize priorities, Working together, Empathetic Listening, Recharge. This article focuses on Recharge.
We are all experiencing a great time in technology and innovation. We are immersed in smart phones, computers, and vehicles that practically drive themselves. Technology and innovation are designed to make life convenient and more efficient. This is different from the era in which I was raised.
We had to plan things better because many modern conveniences weren’t available. Today, we have more things to save time, yet it still seems that we don’t have enough time. We have more ways to communicate, but we seem to be less personal with one another. I walked around my firehouse the other day and observed that no one was talking to each other. Each member was busy on a computer, smart phone, and so on. Firefighters have always “gone to their corners” during the day. I just don’t remember the lack of communication being so sustained. With so many distractions, it’s easy not to have priorities organized.
The speed of innovation and information can pile up before we know it. Burnout can sneak up and overwhelm. Showing up to work burned out is not the kind of readiness our citizens deserve.
Recharging slows things down and ensures you make steps that count. Recharging doesn’t confuse activity with productivity. As often as I can, I make myself sit down and isolate time for planning, meditation, a values visit, reflection, and adjusting priorities.
When I skip Recharge time, I consistently take two steps forward and three steps backward. This action is equivalent to being on a treadmill expecting to make it down the road. Personal Readiness demands Recharge. My routine also includes shutting down all distractions (cell phone, social media, TV, sometimes radio). Next, I list categories that are important to me. This may be different for each individual. My categories are family/household, community, career, spiritual, personal improvement. By listing the categories, I'm able to plug in details under each one. Like most of us, I am multidimensional. To ensure I’m running on all cylinders, all dimensions need feeding. Chronically ignoring key things that matter to you and your life harms personal readiness and eventually erodes professional readiness.
My family is the first team before I reach my fire team. Without consistent connection with my wife and four kids, problems are imminent. Communication on vision and direction with my wife helps navigate the goals for the children. We have routine family meetings to coordinate activities. We identify what is important for each of us and make plans to support one another. We consistently visit our family values and execute as necessary. All of my children enjoy seeing us at their games, performances, and so on. We purposely balance our lives so all of us get support from our family nucleus. When we each feel the strong support and work toward our family mission and vision, it makes the crazy hours of our profession easier to deal with. If there is a disagreement with my wife or any of my children, we make an effort to discuss it in person for better communication. Not engaging these disagreements while on duty helps me to remain professionally ready. Often, by the time I get home from my shift, the problem is solved or diffused. This makes it easier to discuss the issue and eliminate any distracting emotion. The Recharge principle, exercised with the Family/Household secures things at home while you are at work.
When Michael Jordan first came into the National Basketball Association, he got the name Air Jordan because he possessed the gift of taking flight on the basketball court. Like all of us, age kicked in and some of his flights had to be grounded. Weight, knees, and reflexes, forced Air Jordan to find other ways to continue to be excellent. Therefore, he perfected jump shots, lay-ups, and drawing the foul for the three-point shot. I don’t know if Mr. Jordan actually sat down and mapped out a game plan as his career changed, but the results speak for themselves.
The fire service has many jobs that make our profession great. We have firefighters, engineers, officers, trainers, and so on. When you reflect on your gift, you discover things to contribute. You may be the next Chief Halton, Chief Brunacini, Chief Lasky, Chief McCormick, or Chief Norman. You are a game changer. You can enhance your career and impact the career of all firefighters.
It can be very seductive to sit in the firehouse for 30 years just going through the motions. At one point, I had a week on the job. I blinked, and I had more than 20 years on the job. Start early dissecting your career. Identify your gifts to pass them on to the present and future generations. We received the torch from our firefighter forefathers. Now It’s our turn. I consider myself a pretty good firefighter, but I know guys in my department who are only gifted when it comes to firefighting.
After a Recharge session, I concluded that in addition to fighting fires I had an affinity for teaching and training. Like Michael Jordan, I am getting older and, therefore, I have to create more ways to contribute. This revelation has helped a great deal in fighting potential burnout caused by routine. I’m enjoying the sweet spot of working in the firehouse, teaching, instructing in and outside of the department. The more I teach, the more I learn. I’m able to pass new information on to my crew. An added bonus is that my crew and I get to work on some training evolutions together. The beauty is we get to feed our professional readiness in additional ways.
Intentionally exercising the Recharge principle enables me to discover more ways to strengthen our industry. Walking in your gift is a win-win for you and the fire service. You will feel complete, and you will help others feel complete when you share your gifts. Take a hard honest look at yourself and your fire service career to see if you can enhance your personal and professional readiness.
Firehouses are in communities where we serve and reside. Our firehouses and homes are not islands. We affect and are affected by where we work and live. This realization has prompted me to feed my personal readiness by getting involved with my community. The point that has to remain consistent in the whole text is that personal readiness and professional readiness have to be connected to achieve optimal effectiveness. I realize that being tied to my community improves my customer service. I naturally want to do a quality job where I’m connected. It’s one thing to be connected out of duty, but I wanted to take it to a deeper level--a level where citizens aren’t just a checkmark on a sheet of paper, but human beings deserving of a genuine delivery of service. I have found that my attention to this community-focused mentality has helped me find the balance between giving genuine service while maintaining professionalism. Unbalanced service could mean being too involved with citizens, violating their personal space, and compromising my professionalism. Unbalanced service can also mean being so professional that I miss opportunities to care. Like most firehouses we receive assignments to display our fire apparatus and equipment at neighborhood events. This is an important part of connecting with our community. In my career, I’ve heard or murmured to myself that I have to “do this talk” or “standby at a venue.” Changing my attitude and making community connections maximizes these opportunities. When I changed my attitude and connected with my crew, our collective attitude changed. As a result, the venue wins by getting an enthusiastic crew to deliver the message.
Years ago, I volunteered at a children's burn camp in my state. My intention was to do it one time for the experience. That was more than 10 years ago. What has kept me committed to this cause is that I met a few kids at the camp who were in my community. Some of their stories centered on a lack of education and strong adult involvement. After making this connection between camp and community, I realized how important involvement is on the front end. More work and education on the front end would lessen or eliminate the need for kids attending burn camp.
The camp experience also connected me to the fact that rescuing a child from a fire is just the beginning of a lifelong journey. We may transport them to the hospital and in time forget, but life for the survivor goes on. After the accident, being able to experience some of the child's life fuses my commitment to the community. There is not enough time in the day to commit to every community cause. However, I chose to make time for a cause I can help to make a positive change. During the time I’ve spent at the burn camp, I have witnessed some of these amazing campers grow up, live normal lives, and positively impact their communities.
I realized that community is all of us working together. This is just one of many success stories related to my work in the community. After more than 20 years in the fire service, I have witnessed how connecting with community can be a huge piece of the puzzle. Community connection helps to fortify personal readiness. Personal readiness fortified strengthens professional readiness. Strong personal readiness and professional readiness ensure optimal readiness.
One of the pillars of our Growing Leaders Using Empowerment (GLUE) workshop is having participants realize that being a firefighter is good, but being a good person is better. Spiritual and personal improvement is personal to each individual. I can tell you my principled values. You have to discover yours. The fire service has a key word—“service.” One key element in service is sacrifice. Everything subordinates to the call while on duty. Unfortunately, there are times when the ultimate sacrifice happens in fighting to save life and property. Firefighters understand this when they take the oath of this job. To truly sacrifice my well-being to serve and maybe die for someone I don’t know is a heavy mantle. Whether I’m fighting to save the life of a fellow firefighter or a citizen, I don’t want any hesitation. Spiritual/personal improvement convicts me. It makes me want to dig deep into my core. Spending time in my core value system keeps me connected to my fellow man.
God, family, and career keep me grounded and in order. I study books, attend seminars, and listen to CDs that contain examples and stories about human greatness. To do our job successfully, we need a can do attitude even when all seems impossible. This spirit has to be fed on a routine basis. I believe and pass on to my crew this message, “You can’t go from zero to hero.” The inner you needed to perform in adverse situations is built before the situation. I do professional readiness drills because this will prepare me for the overt and covert circumstances. When I address spiritual and personal improvement, I feel this gives me the edge. My vision for optimal readiness is fulfilled when this principle is fed.
Personal improvement isn’t just about reading. It is also about making better decisions about my health. I have often heard, “Fires don’t kill firefighters; heart attacks do.” Lack of attention to our health can snuff us out without notice. Years ago, I tore the ACL in my knee and had months of rehab. The rehab specialist informed me that she was preparing me for work the way she would train an athlete. My rehab included drills for “rehearsed” moves and “unrehearsed” moves. The theory behind the unrehearsed rehab drills was to prepare me for having to move without thinking, at a moment’s notice. If my knee wasn't prepared for the unrehearsed, it wouldn’t perform when I needed it. Imagine the danger if I had to move quickly on a fire scene.
Whether we are discussing the heart, the knee, or wellness in general, we need to maintain optimal health. We respond to calls day and night. We go from a dead sleep to a fiery inferno within five minutes. This is a shock to anyone. It is “unrehearsed.” Our personal health “system” needs to be ready for the rehearsed and unrehearsed. Proactive attention to my health improves my personal readiness. Mind, body, and soul searching on a regular basis, fortifies spiritual/personal improvement. Some of you reading this may think, as I did, that this is corny stuff. I have discovered that when I spend time addressing what seems insignificant regularly, I maintain an edge, a sharpness. Physical training keeps my family and doctor happy. It also maintains readiness for the demands of our job. Mental training helps me to make the best decisions on and off the fire scene. Order is maintained within both houses, my personal house and the firehouse. The maintenance of spiritual/personal improvement primes the pump for every aspect of readiness. I feel it’s the conduit that energizes everything I am. If this energy source is not powered then, we lose juice in critical areas of readiness at the most inconvenient times. In our profession, we cannot afford for that to happen.
The ultimate mission of GLUE is to give leaders tools like the principle of Recharge that will feed their personal readiness. Mastering personal leadership will impact you and those around you. Leadership is not a coat you put on when you arrive at the firehouse. Eventually, the deficit between what your position is and who you are will be exposed. Inside-out change is necessary and critical. Growth happens with consistent small positive changes over time. Sometimes growth happens with painful lessons mixed in. One day you realize you aren’t the same person you were one, five, or 20 years ago. Intentional change will impact readiness in ways you can’t imagine.
To Recharge for personal readiness is a necessary exercise. Setting intentional time aside to feed this GLUE principle requires discipline. I still have to work at being intentional because it’s easy to wait to do things later. Sometimes, later never comes for me. Maybe, you’re the same. I have found that when I change later to now, my later is more productive. The road map is exciting when I see my End vision. Measurable steps feeding my personal and professional readiness keep me Recharged even after more than 20 years on the job.
The ultimate goal for me is balance. We all have different details in our lives, but balance is necessary for us all. Life tends to be unbalanced. The essence of our profession is to deal with people at the most unbalanced point in their lives. I feel that the more balanced I am, the better I am able to help. Optimal Readiness is near perfect readiness (personal/professional readiness). Like any exercise, you may never reach perfection. I can testify to this fact. You will get stronger going through the process. Strong leaders in the ranks, leading the ranks, or being responsible for all the ranks need Optimal Readiness.
I’m in relentless pursuit of being the optimal leader of me. This is the best gift I can give to all in my personal and professional circles. Any areas in which I fall short, diminish that gift. Recharge Readiness for Optimal Readiness is my path. Hopefully, it becomes yours. See you on the path.
LARRY C. CONLEY is president of Leadership Development Concepts, LLC and lead presenter of “Growing Leaders Using Empowerment.” He is a captain and a 22-year veteran of the fire service. A fire service instructor II and a Missouri State lead evaluator, he is a lead instructor for Highlander Fire Academy at St. Louis Community College. He is an ISFSI member.