How to Become the Uniformed Intellectual

By Timothy P. Hennessey

During my relatively short time here on earth (some 25 years), I have heard many axioms and clichés coined during conversation. The one that always struck me was “Knowledge is power.” As I continue on in my career in the fire service and have the opportunity to be mentored by great teachers, I now know why. In the fire service, knowledge truly is power—the power to save lives (of our fellow firefighters and of the public we serve).


The fire service, since its inception, has made progress that would awe any student of our proud history. From the bucket brigades of Roman times to the pump-and-roll capability of crash trucks, we have had to advance as much as our equipment has. Long gone are the days of old when you applied for appointment to the fire department at city hall and started on the downtown engine company later that week for a night shift. Now we have complex and demanding academies to attend and stringent graduation guidelines. Too few of us, however, take it to the next level afterward.

We should consider graduating from a fire academy merely as a milestone. It is up to us individually and later in our careers as leaders to ensure that the learning process goes far beyond.

Our chosen profession is a complex and demanding one. Let there be no mistake: Firefighting is a profession. It is just as much a profession as being a doctor, nurse, or lawyer. Few too many people—including ourselves—realize the vast amount of knowledge we need to accomplish our jobs. From any of a number of technical rescue certifications to medical and advanced medical care, chemistry, and fire science, the demands of our jobs change almost daily. The firefighter truly has become the jack-of-all-trades. Now, in the post 9/11 environment, we’ve been called on to absorb and learn new tasks and prepare for new threats. Now we must become weapons of mass destruction and terrorism experts to defend our communities.

The point is this: There are numerous things we must know and know well. Recruit training only takes us so far. As firefighters and managers, it is ultimately up to us to prepare ourselves for the challenges of tomorrow.

We’ve often heard that professionalism is more than your appearance—it’s your state of mind. Professionalism is dedication personified. The new millennium is the Information Age. For fire personnel, I’d call it the Knowledge Age. The amount of educational opportunities available on the Internet and elsewhere is staggering.

I have lost track of how many times I’ve heard scheduling, family issues, or financial constraints as excuses for a lack of self-education. There are numerous courses that are free of charge. They are self-study programs that allow you to complete the course at your own pace. I have taken many of these courses; even 10 minutes a day will allow you to absorb information that many of our fellow firefighters probably do not know is out there. Courses range from arson investigation to radiological emergencies.

Also, do not overlook old-fashioned literature as an educational resource. How many of our colleagues, whether managers or entry level firefighters, have a library card? The local library has a wealth of information on the technical aspects of our job. Aside from the technical aspects, there is also another overlooked resource: autobiographical works and works of fiction. A great many famous leaders, whether corporate heads, presidents, or military leaders, have written works describing their leadership trials and errors. Abraham Lincoln, Colin Powell, and Norman Schwartzkopf—all are accomplished leaders and have books in your library. They provide valuable insights into the roles of leadership.

Literature can also offer great and important insights into the community you serve. If you work in a city that has a multicultural makeup or multicultural leadership, the literary works of that culture offer insights you could not find anywhere else. Those who work in public relations or fire prevention will find that by understanding the different dynamics that make us who we are, we will be better able to communicate.

Works of fiction or procedurals are valuable tools to those tasked with investigation. While the stories are false, respected authors use proven and tried investigative techniques. By reading this type of material in your “downtime,” you keep your mind in the “investigative mode.” You may also find that something you read once will come back to you during the reality of your job and help you to go back to something you have overlooked.


There is not one of us who hasn’t felt the crunch of budget constraints. Many times the city or fire administration will deny our request to attend a course or seminar because “the money is not there.”

I challenge you to invest in yourself. When applicable and within fiscal reason, it will behoove you more than you think to dust off your checkbook and pay for a class or seminar personally. The price of the course is so many dollars, but the value is education that may save your life or revolutionize the way you or your department does things. There is also something to be said for this mentality when going before a review or promotional board. Ask yourself, as a manager, What type of individuals do I want around me—those who say “If they’re not gonna pay for it, I’m not going” or those who made a small sacrifice for themselves and their organization and use the money from an overtime shift to take the course? I know what my answer would be. The hundred or so dollars you spend now may lead to a raise or promotion in the future. And, you never know, perhaps you’ll get reimbursed. Isn’t it worth the risk?


Is graduating from the academy or being promoted to lieutenant enough? Surely if you’ve passed these hurdles, you can overcome others. So why stop there? Graduating from the academy or getting promoted and then blending into the shadows, never to be seen by a promotion board again, is a gross disservice to ourselves. With the educational opportunities available to us from the library, the Internet, and grants, it is almost inexcusable not to further our education. When we reach a milestone, we should take the time to master it and then ask ourselves, What’s next?

With what type of people do you surround yourself? Are you part of the crowd out by the pumper that spends the whole shift going on and on about the problems in the department, slamming the chief or the commissioner? Or are you one of the people who surrounds yourself with others who will help you grow—people who will support you, celebrate your accomplishments, and yet ask you, “What’s next?” After graduating from the academy, how long do you have to wait before the lieutenant’s exam? Then when’s the captain’s exam? These are questions our confidants should be asking us and we should be asking ourselves.

Learning from the past is essential to creating the future. I urge everyone to learn from the past—not just the past of your own department, either. Annual reports are published about investigations into line-of-duty deaths. Seminars are held every year on safety and survival. If we do not educate ourselves on why our fellow firefighters died, then we are just as vulnerable to the same fate. Order the reports; they’re free. Subscribe to the trade magazines like Fire Engineering. Find out what happened so the same doesn’t happen to you or your co-workers.

Finally, equally as important as education—if not more so—is experience. Just because you’re the young new lieutenant with a degree, don’t think you know everything. When I used to listen to my father speak about his time during the Vietnam War, his biggest complaints were about some of his lieutenants. They had the rank, they had the education, but they lacked any credibility with the men because of lack of combat experience. It’s difficult to lead personnel who have been in combat when you yourself have not. There is no difference in the fire service.

Take the time to learn from the older members of your department. They have the experience and will readily share it. You will be able to take that information and apply it to your experiences. Give your assignments your all, pay attention to the details, and learn the job inside and out. The best way to learn anything is to do it. Take the overtime shifts; work the extra duty details; and, if you can, devote some, or more, volunteer time.

A complaint often heard about classified ads that say “Must have experience” is, How do I get the experience if no one will give me a chance? The answer is simple: Get out there and do all you can.

TIMOTHY P. HENNESSEY, a firefighter for eight years, is a captain with the Eskan Village Fire & Emergency Services at the U.S. Army base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he is responsible for WMD preparedness. He was a rescue team technician with the Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford, Connecticut, and a lieutenant and operations officer for the Rescue Dive Team of the Waterford Fire Department. He was a member of the Emergency Services Unit at Pfizer Global Research and Development in New London. He is also a registered private investigator for Glenn Investigations LLC, where he performs criminal and fire investigations. He is a certified criminal defense investigator and a member of the National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI) and the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI).

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