Captain’s Corner: Surviving and Thriving

By Michael Hennigan

In a previous column, I asked: Why would anyone want to be an officer? The most common answer was “to make things better.” I agree that is a very noble aspiration, but making things better means change, and it takes courage to even propose change in the fire service.

In his 1960 Inaugural Address, the newly elected President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to “ask not what the country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” Allow me to paraphrase the late president: “Ask not what your department can do for you but what you can do for your department.

I was recently reading through a fire service blog where firefighters, as well as officers, were lamenting that their particular departments did not have a mentoring program. Complaining about our departments’ shortcomings is a favorite pastime for all of us! We all want our departments to be the best, but we are reluctant to make the personal commitment it takes to achieve that. When you say the words, “My department doesn’t have ___________,” I want you to stop yourself and ask if this is not an opportunity for you to make your department better.

My department did not have a firefighter mentoring program. That did not stop a young firefighter named Steve Cruz from starting his own mentoring program. As the battalion chief sharing quarters with his engine company, Steve selected me as his mentor. He did not complain about the department’s lack of a formal program. He simply selected an officer that he respected, knocked on my office door, and asked if I had time to answer a few questions. How could I deny someone interested in improving his or her knowledge? His questions were always thoughtful and relevant to recent incidents.

Have you ever been told that you can never be as good a firefighter as the generation before because there aren’t as many fires as there used to be? Of course, you have. That is what every generation tells the next. There are not as many fires as there used to be, but that does not mean you cannot be as skilled at fighting fires as they are! Good fire departments are actively seeking buildings scheduled for demolition for “live burns” and using these opportunities to gain the necessary experience. There has never been more information disseminated through more mediums than today: magazines, videos, books, Web sites, conferences— not only are there lectures, but there are also hands-on training opportunities, podcasts (you can hear my leadership podcast under “Captain’s Corner”), and professional trainers who will come to you.

Some departments have never experienced “good times,” yet they continue to achieve as much as those better financed departments. I recently lectured at a small department that in conjunction with two nearby fire departments had built one of the nicest classrooms I have ever seen. They identified a parcel of land unused by another city department, solicited donations from local businesses, and did much of the labor themselves. Grant money was used to bring trainers and speakers to the facility for the benefit of all three departments.

Another department used its training facility and instructors to charge outside firefighters for various training–confined space, rescue systems, etc.–and put the proceeds toward improving its facility until it had built an extraordinary array of props to advance the training of its personnel.

As a training officer, I was asked to develop a confined space rescue program for the department. When I requested a $3,000 winch and tripod for our rescue squad, I was told there was no money in the current budget for additional equipment. Discouraged but not defeated, I arranged a rescue demonstration for our underground utility company and borrowed a tripod and winch from a rigging company. First, I demonstrated to the utility company our ability to execute an underground rescue using two ladders strapped together with a z-rig suspended from the top. We were able to put a rescuer at the victim’s side in 15 minutes. I then brought out the tripod and repeated the rescue in less than five minutes. That afternoon, the utility company called me with a purchase order number to buy our tripod and winch!

The moral of this story is tw ofold. One, persistence pays off. “Where there is a will, there is a way.” Two, there are private companies and public departments that have the resources to support your needs. Many private companies would love to have a working relationship with the local fire department. Larger companies often have personnel charged with developing community relations, and a $3,000 donation is not extraordinary.
Within your city or county , there are departments that generate revenue: sewage treatment, water, gas, electric, parking enforcement, etc. Often, they are depending on your services, whether you know it or not. Underground utility companies and sewage treatment facilities are naming you as rescuers on their confined space entry permits. Construction companies depend on you for medical assistance for injuries sustained on the job. I am not suggesting you strong-arm these companies or departments but that you explore the possibilities. I was surprised by how willing others were to help; all I had to do was ask.

A friend of mine owns a company that builds cell towers. I pointed out to him that fire stations are often strategically placed in communities and might be interested in generating long-term revenue in exchange for leasing ground space for a tower. We are currently working with fire departments throughout California to evaluate their sites for cell tower development.

There are always opportunities to make our departments better. Often, it only takes someone to recognize it and champion it to fruition. Companies throughout the country are reinventing themselves to survive this recession, and so must we.

Michael Hennigan retired as a battalion chief from the San Francisco (CA) Fire Department after served 35 years with the department. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in business from the University of San Francisco. He is certified by the California State Fire Marshal to teach management and tactics. For the past 10 years, he has taught numerous fire departments throughout northern California and is a part-time instructor for City College of San Francisco. He can be reached via e-mail at


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