Van Dorpe’s Challenge to Fire Service Members: “Become a ‘Giant'”

FDIC International/YouTube

At this morning’s FDIC 2012 General Session, Peter Van Dorpe of the Chicago (IL) Fire Department delivered the keynote address, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.” Van Dorpe’s message was based on the following quote from John of Salisbury, a 12th century theologian and author:

We are like dwarfs standing (sic) on the shoulders of giants. We see more

than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than

 they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.

The address highlighted the magnitude of the responsibility fire service instructors have to build on the foundation of the fire service passed on to today’s fire service by those who came before them. Instructors, he charged, are to be agents of change–advocates of the new and the different and the first to adopt new ideas and techniques–and to “leave the job a little better for the next guy.

Just as important, Van Dorpe added, is that the fire service should “never lose sight of the foundation on which those new ideas were built.” We must remember who built the fire service we have inherited as well as what they did. It is incumbent on all of us to do as they did and prepare the next generation of leaders to preserve and enhance this unique service and culture we have built.”

Everyone attending FDIC this week would readily acknowledge the debt we owe to the giants of the fire service who came before us. It was their strength, courage, and devotion to duty that built the fire service we are so privileged to be a part of today. The greatest legacy of this greatest of firefighting generations–the thing that really made them giants was that despite the fact that they were certain we were useless, they picked us up and placed us on their shoulder and carried us for a time. They made us what we are. They made it possible for us to see what we can see. 

We owe them a debt that cannot be repaid. Now, it is our turn. No matter how new you are, tomorrow there will be someone newer, and they will look to you. 

Van Dorpe suggested that today’s members pay on that debt in the only way that has any meaning for those “giants” and the fire service they loved so well:

Become a giant yourself. Lift up the next generation of firefighters so that they may see more than you could. If the next generation of firefighters fails  to meet our expectations, it will be our fault, not theirs. We ourselves were  nothing until the giants who came before us lifted us up and carried us for a time. 

Maintaining a vibrant and competent fire service, Van Dorpe said, will largely depend on how well the fire service understands its mission and the extent to which members adhere to the service’s values.

“There is now, and always has been, a lot of talk about changing the culture of the fire service,” Van Dorpe explained. “I understand and support the motivation that drives that discussion, but I think it contains at least the seed of a fundamental flaw. You don’t change a culture; a culture (shared values, attitudes, goals, and practices) changes you. I believe our willingness to define, articulate, and take ownership of those characteristics–particularly our values–will largely determine how well we meet the challenges confronting us. If each of us looks inward first and asks, ‘which of my behaviors needs changing?’ we will reach that goal.”

Van Dorpe has been a member of the Chicago Fire Department for 32 years; he is the director of training. In addition to his work as a field instructor for the Illinois Fire Service Institute, he has been a lead instructor for the Chicago Fire Department’s Fire Officer School and teaches building construction for the fire service through the City Colleges of Chicago. He recently participated as a subject matter expert for Underwriters Laboratories’ research on “Structural Stability of Engineered Lumber Under Fire Conditions” and the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s “Evaluating Firefighting Tactics Under Wind-Driven Conditions.”

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