On the Line: Pursuing Perfection and Catching Excellence

David DeStefano

By David DeStefano

Legendary coach Vince Lombardi has no shortage of quotes that apply equally well to football and the fire service. One such pearl of wisdom includes the following, “…we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will never catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence. I am not remotely interested in just being good.” These words illuminate the very best of our fire service values. Just being good has never been our goal. Every firefighter, officer, and chief must strive for perfection each day. The constant pursuit of this goal is the very thing that builds skills and knowledge, and this spirit has led our profession to great accomplishments and acts of heroism.

The individual pursuit of perfection is a noble undertaking. However, like Coach Lombardi’s players, we take the field as a team. Each element of the team must strive for perfection to catch excellence. An excellent company is easy to identify in any fire department. It consists of a leader who has a vision of perfection and a plan to work toward the vision. That company is a team of firefighters sharing the vision and working each day to pursue perfection. These me members understand that hard work must be offered every shift to catch excellence. When times are good, when the going is rough, when others quit the fight, when some of the team falters, pick them up and move on. A great benefit of our team is the bond of shared experiences throughout our fire service careers. We have seen our successes catch excellence and felt the pain of coming up short.  

How can we pursue perfection in our fire service careers each day? There is common ground for every firefighter regardless of rank or tenure. However, depending on their position within an organization, a firefighter will have certain opportunities to pursue perfection that can affect the progress of those around them as well as their individual goals. Some of the paths to catch excellence are discussed in the following paragraphs.

New Firefighters

As a new member, be sure to continue to master the trade that has been presented to you in your academy. Look to senior for firefighters for guidance. Listen, observe, and read everything you can about the fire service and the history of your department. Learn the roots of our service to understand the importance of continual education, training, and respect for our traditions, and keep an open mind for the future. Surround yourself with mentors and peers that are motivated. Make a commitment to learn at least one new piece of information about your job each day. With this goal, even you don’t achieve perfection, you will catch excellence!

Senior Firefighters

Mentor the next generation. Don’t shield them from reality. Enable them to cope with a dynamic environment, adverse situations, and unfavorable outcomes. New firefighters will look to you and emulate your reaction to emergency and non-emergency situations. The reality of our profession is that even perfectly executed operations may not have perfect outcomes. As a senior member embrace continued education and evolving theories. Strive to understand and apply as appropriate new tools, techniques, and tactics. Understand that senior firefighters are the most influential group for the future of any fire department. A senior firefighter should have mastery of skills and experience in applying them during a range of incidents. This group will develop the talent of new members, provide them institutional knowledge, and become the next supervisors to lead the department into the future. To develop the skills of new firefighters and be prepared to advance to a supervisory role, the senior firefighter must never be satisfied with his or her base of knowledge. To catch excellence, it’s imperative to know that the fire service is a profession that requires constant evolution in skills and information.

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Company Officers

As a company officer, take care to surround yourself with the most motivated firefighters of different levels of experience. Working with some senior members and others who are new to the job has tremendous advantages. As an officer pursing perfection, the senior firefighters are a valuable resource. Additionally, those highly motivated people with less experience will challenge you to teach them and in so doing help ensure your basic skills remain polished. One roadblock to officer success is understanding the scope of an officer’s influence. A lieutenant isn’t likely to change the direction of a fire department overnight. A more reasonable goal is to build the strongest, most effective unit in the fire department. This is a goal that, when achieved, will cause surrounding companies to take note and follow suit. In this way, over time, the lieutenant will change the course of the department.

The company officer must provide a constant example of leadership for all the members of the company. Firefighters assigned with the company officer will look for different attributes of that leadership that correspond to their place in the unit. Probies and newer members will need to understand rules, policies and customs. Senior firefighters will look to the officer for guidance in decision-making during incidents and routine matters. This type of leadership will shape the officers those members will someday become.

While the company officer may have spent years honing fire service skills, studying tactics, and learning the response area, a pursuit of perfection requires a willingness for continual learning. An officer must use their base of knowledge and apply new concepts to the circumstances of their department. This ability will aid in preparation for becoming a chief officer.

Chief Officer

As the actions and attitudes of a chief officer are held as an example to all ranks, do nothing to jeopardize your honor or reputation or that of the fire service. Continue your pursuit of perfection by learning new approaches to firefighting as well as management skills. Apply and aid in the evolution of fresh ideas that flourish from all levels of your organization. A chief officer can promote excellence within the department by supporting and cultivating the projects and ambitions of all motivated firefighters. Additionally, chiefs must continually groom their replacements. The science and art of strategic decision-making during incidents as well as routine operations is not perfected overnight when a new chief is promoted. Allowing senior officers to participate in or at least observe aspects of a chief officer’s duties will enhance the officer’s perspective and allow for a shorter learning curve upon promotion.

Regardless of whether they serve at the battalion level or chief of department, chief officers should observe and listen to what the firefighters need and do everything possible to be sure those needs are fulfilled. As long as the chief applies an honest effort and doesn’t bluff, the members will generally understand that not every request can be immediately accommodated. In assessing the welfare and needs of the firefighters, a chief officer should take time to talk to probies and junior firefighters on the job. Whereas experienced firefighters and officers may be most helpful in equipment and policy matters, newer firefighters need the acceptance of a chief officer. These members represent the future of the fire service and they need to know their chiefs are approachable and concerned about their welfare.

Perhaps most importantly, remain true to your original purpose for becoming a firefighter and the core values that led to your promotion to chief. As one of the most senior members of a fire department, a chief can be easily distracted by many priorities that have little relation to the mission of an engine or ladder company. Take the time to reflect on what it was like serving in those companies to help you focus on the mission needs of those currently operating at the company level.

These thoughts barely scratch the surface of the limitless ways firefighters can pursue perfection to catch excellence. Developing a plan with ambitious goals for each stage of a career in the fire service to set a path on which excellence may be achieved.  

David DeStefano is a battalion chief with the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he has served for 29 years. He is a shift commander in the operations division. He was previously chief of training and safety and has also served as a captain, lieutenant, and firefighter in Ladder Co. 1 as well as a lieutenant in Engine Co. 3. DeStefano is an instructor/coordinator with the Rhode Island Fire Academy and lectures on fire service topics throughout Southern New England. He was a presenter at FDIC International 2017 and 2018.    

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