Professional Attributes: How Do You Measure Up?

By Dave Murphy

We would all like to be viewed as professionals. We leave the comfort of our homes each day and arrive at our appointed duty station, prepared to meet the tasks at hand. Do we equate the mere wearing of a uniform and showing up on time as qualifiers for being viewed as a professional? In his book, Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence1, Mark Wallace defines a professional as “one who has an assured competence in a particular field or practice.” While no one will argue the importance of achieving numerous technical skills applicable to the demands of the fire service, it does not automatically infer that a competent individual is indeed a true professional. Wallace also provides a list of personable attributes that should be present in each member’s daily actions to grow professionally. As we investigate each attribute, I invite you to reflect inward and ask yourself, How do I measure up?

A professional is motivated. Motivation comes easy when the dispatch is “smoke showing, persons believed to be trapped.” Is the same motivation to excel present on the 2 a.m. nursing home medical call? Motivation improves the function of the fire department and results in a higher caliber of service to the community.2 Our personal example of self-motivation should serve as a standard for others to emulate.

A professional is team oriented. How often is the Super Bowl, the World Series, or another sports finale won singlehandedly? The answer is “never.” The same logic can be applied to the entire fire service. It is imperative that suppression forces team up with prevention, education, and other related families. A more effective fire department will emerge as a result of a true team effort.

A professional is self-reliant. A refrain often heard around the fire station is, “No one told me to do it, so I didn’t.” We simply must be accountable for our actions, even when there is no supervision present. The ability to make timely and accurate decisions is necessary and expected from those in the fire service. A true professional will take the initiative and go beyond what is expected.

A professional is focused. There is a time to be playful and a time to be serious. Many in the fire service blur this distinction. It is not an uncommon event to witness horseplay or other forms of inattention during a training or educational presentation. Valuable time and resources have been committed to this event in the hope that it will better prepare us to do our job. It is imperative that we devote our full attention to the lesson at hand. Active participation is another trait of professionalism.

A professional is enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is contagious! New recruits typically exhibit the emotions that we should emit on a daily basis. Where has our once-passionate devotion gone? For the majority, it is still there; we simply must revive it. Get involved! Volunteer for departmental committees, become a mentor, request new and ever more challenging assignments. You might just find that you still have it.

A professional is confident. At the incident scene, decisions are quickly made based on training and the facts that are present. Do we display the same assurance in nonemergency situations? I would suggest that all members of the fire service take a good look at themselves. What are your known fears and weaknesses? Once you have identified them, seek measures to eliminate or at least improve them. Growth really does occur when you venture out of the comfort zone.

A professional is introspective. Simply put, we learn from our own mistakes and the mistakes of others. It brings to mind the old quote, “Experience is a hard teacher–it gives the test first.” Self-examination and constant improvement are ongoing trademarks of the professional.

A professional is open-minded. When NFPA 1500 was proposed over a decade ago, the cry across the nation was, “It will put us out of business; we will never be able to comply.” In reality, most of the fire service is either compliant or has made great strides in the effort to be. As a result, we have a much safer fire service. What changes will the future demand? The close-minded person is already left behind.

A professional has a positive attitude. This is possibly the greatest of all attributes. We can all think of someone who exhibits a positive attitude on a daily basis. We can think of many others that do not. We tend to remember those on each end of the spectrum. Which do you wish to be known as?

A professional is prideful. Professionals wear the uniform with distinction. They represent their department in the highest possible tradition. Most professionals exhibit this trait regardless of whether they’re on duty or not. They are proud of the department and of their contribution to it. In reflection, have you ever judged a department by the first member that you met? Did your initial meeting emit professionalism?

A professional is honest. Honesty is a trait that simply cannot be compromised. As witnessed in the police scandals involving brutality, one bad apple reflects poorly (although undeservedly) on the whole profession. The honesty of an individual should be carefully gauged in the prehiring process. Departmental hiring teams should provide further insight regarding an individual’s character. Individual honesty should not be negotionable in any department. Lying and cheating are not desirable attributes in any profession.

A professional is supportive. Professionals support those above, below, and at their present level. At one time or another, each of us needs a nudge or possibly a helping hand. A supporter always fares better than a detractor. Take time to help your fellow brother or sister; it will pay huge dividends down the road.

A professional is educated. When was the last time you went to a doctor who did not display a corresponding medical degree on the wall? The old cliché “I’ve never seen a textbook put out a fire” is soon to be history, if it is not already. Simply put, it takes many resources to enable us to do our job. Many leaders operate on what is given to them because they lack the skills to generate additional funding. Proactive fire service leaders of the future will not effectively function without a proper base of education that will better prepare them for the increasing intricacies of the job.

A professional is opportunistic. When opportunity knocks, we must be ready to open the door. This opportunity often involves change. Usually, we humans are wary of change. We crave the norm, the constant, what we are comfortable with. Opportunists will not only seek change, they will embrace it. As a rule, what is good for promoting growth in the individual promotes growth in the department. A professional will always challenge the norm and seek a better way.

A professional is proud. These individuals walk with an air of confidence. They are proud to be a part of the organization and not afraid to show it. Their appearance overflows into their personal as well as professional lives. Many fire service professionals are involved in other activities that directly or indirectly reflect in a positive manner on the fire service.

A professional is dedicated. Dedication is usually easy to spot at the emergency scene. Is the same dedication apparent when addressing equipment maintenance and station duties? A willingness to always do the right thing is admirable. True professional dedication does not waver from day to day.

A professional is disciplined. Whether we realize it or not, conduct on duty and off duty is scrutinized. It is imperative that we learn self-discipline and keep our tongues in check. If you can’t walk the walk and talk the talk, then others will not respect you. It is extremely important to display a high degree of self control.3

A professional is loyal. One must always remain true to the team. Remaining steadfast, in good times and bad times, to the organization is a hallmark of the professional.

Fire departments need members with the qualifications and interest to serve their respective departments. In essence, the fire service needs those individuals, regardless of rank, who are willing to make the personal and professional commitments required to become a true professional4.

According to the listed standards, it is safe to say there are many career and volunteer fire service members who are not professional. On the flip side, it is safe to say many of your fellow brothers and sisters are truly fire service professionals5.

So how do you measure up? Are you a true professional? If you are like me, you have scored quite well in some areas, poorly in others. The question at hand is, Do you wish to improve? Wallace has provided an excellent list to begin your self-examination. The rest is up to you.

1Wallace, Mark. Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence. Penwell Publishing Company. 1998.
2Grant, Nancy & Hoover, David. Fire Service Administration. National Fire Protection Association. 1994.
3Brugeman, Randy R. “Perseverance Under Pressure” Fire Chief, Primedia Inc. July 2002.
4 Fleming, Robert S. “Leaders From the Pack” Fire Chief, Primedia Inc. February 2002.
5 Chiaramonte, Mike. “Are you a Professional?” Fire Chief, Primedia Inc. May 2002.

Dave Murphy retired as an assistant chief with the Richmond (KY) Fire Department. He has industrial experience as a safety director with AFG Industries. He is currently at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where he serves as an assistant professor in the Fire Science Engineering Technology program.


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