A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of touring the Bergen County, New Jersey Police and Fire Academy with Chief Fire Instructor John Evans. Afterward John invited me to visit with Ronald Calissi, director of the academy and county public safety education. In the middle of our lively discussion about quality education, about being progressive, and about life and success in general, Ron picked up a pen and started scribbling on a piece of paper. He leaned over his desk and handed it to me. It read:
Rule # 1: The student comes first. Everything else is 11th. There is no 2 through 10.
Rule #2: If the student doesn’t come first, reread rule #/. Reread it now. I hope the message strikes a chord. It should: Your ability to live by that rule, to adopt it as a personal philosophy, has far-reaching implications for the future of the fire service.
Your future depends on the quality of your training. Training is the single most important controllable means at your disposal to provide quality service and protect personnel. As demands on the fire service increase and become more complex your training resources must grow. The pursuit of quality training is an increasing priority that must not be compromised.
You live 28-hour days. You attend seminars and conferences. You establish curriculum for your weekly department sessions. You plan fire prevention week activities and you’re Smokey the Bear. You stay up at night consuming half the coffee exported by a small South American country and planning your pitch for more money from the city managers. You drive to the next county on a mutual-aid run. You participate in the critique of the fire. Next week there’s a live burn. You’re wondering why you’re bothering to go to bed because you’ll be even more tired in two hours when you have to get up for work. Then someone tells you it isn’t enough.
It isn’t. The fire service is at a turning point and you may not realize it. You hear, “The sleeping giant is awakening” and that’s fine by you. Well, that’s a really nice metaphor, but to me the giant is a little groggy. He’s tiptoeing when he could be taking long, confident strides. That’s not to demean the things you’ve accomplished as a national fire service. I only want to remind you that your potential is unlimited and it’s time to swing the door wide open. Don’t wait for your unions and associations to do it for you; the push must begin with you.
The door will be too heavy to budge unless you (1) enlarge your perspective and change your ideas about what it means to be a student, and (2) change a fragmented fire service into a unified force. Right now’ you’ve got groups and individuals pushing from different directions, sometimes pushing at the same time and sometimes not. You’ve got special interest groups living under the same roof that serve the fire service at large only to the extent that their own memberships are satisfied. For some, the student is not number one, or else there are too many “2 through 10’s.” Simple statements like Ron Calissi’s are easy to agree with but difficult to practice. It becomes particularly difficult when self-appointed “governing” bodies spend all their time “governing” and not enough time learning. And amidst this jumbled mess of good intentions, political ambitions, captivating rhetoric, standards upon standards, and congratulatory applause, we can lose sight of what got us to this point in the first place—training. At stake are real-world federal and state dollars for ambitious, creative, and necessary training programs. There are 1.2 million reasons to change now.
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Congressman Curt Weldon, founder of one of the most powerful tools available to you, the Congressional Fire Services Institute and the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, takes no credit for fire service gains. He believes that whatever happens or doesn’t happen is up to you. As “student.” As “number one.”
“Student” is not a formal title you get for sitting at a desk in a classroom. Nor is a student merely the recipient of information passed through a narrow, one-way channel from one who knows to those who don’t. “Student” is a way of life. Being a student is to accept responsibility for helping to create positive change. It’s hard work: educating oneself on the issues, forming opinions, and sharing those opinions, thereby impacting the consciousness and direction of the group. It is interest and involvement, pushing the four corners of your small world out farther and farther until you can’t see them anymore. The student knows that every person either takes part in building the future or simply lets it happen around him, and so opts for the former. The student in effect smashes the traditional, preconceived notions of the teacher-student relationship and becomes the giver rather than the receiver. Being a student is not an elective. It is a duty.
A little “studenting” can shed new light on a subject. It gets you thinking. It motivates you to act. Your findings may be surprising. What you see as black-and-white suddenly turns to a thousand shades of grey. And that’s good—life is not a black-and-white experience. Often what at face value seems to be the only choice is heavy with overtones, undercurrents, and ramifications in the real, practical world. Studenting will help you to make better choices about what’s best for your fire service.
You may think I’m oversimplifying what seems to be a complex political superstucture. But I don’t think so. It always comes back to basics. Change begins simply with individuals. Systems are only as good as the individuals who believe in them and use them for the better.
It’s a domino effect. Not only will your studenting create some healthy give-and-take between members and departments separated by distances and customs, it will also make it impossible for the special interest groups and government agencies to ignore you. You’re taking a stand. Overcoming political tunnel vision. You’re saying, “Wait a minute —maybe three skillion dollars worth of electrowidgetry is not the answer to our problems. Maybe we can take half that money and make sure that our personnel in the Greenleaf, Idahos and the NewYork Citys are the best prepared they can be for the challenges they may have to face. Here’s how it might be done….” You’re saying, “Look, Group X and Association Y, it’s time to get together and lobby for us because this is what we want.” Best of all, you’re making your opinions heard and thereby achieving a reasonable approximation of unity.
So make the change in your perspective. The students—you —are number one. Get rid of the “2 through 10.” Work for change so that yourdepartment and the fire service as a whole reflects this attitude. Make it so that the governing bodies and special interest groups exist to serve you, not the other way around. Live up to your responsibility as students to be informed and share your opinions. It’s the only way to achieve solidarity and gain momentum. Whether we like it or not, we’re students all.