By Quentin Cash
Writing for National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)
The past year has presented some unique obstacles that have required us to devise inventive ways to operate in our rescue organizations and our personal lives. COVID-19 and social/cultural reform issues weren’t on fire departments’ planning horizons as we entered 2020, and then so much happened. These new developments have afforded us the opportunity to make changes with the future in mind. I am constantly in awe of what the fire service of this great country can overcome. It has yet again risen to the challenges of this past year to conquer these opportunities. This year also gave us the opportunity to slow down, maybe relax a little, and enjoy more time with family and friends. I want to say thank you to every firefighter for your fortitude. It’s an honor to serve with you.
We can now look back at our successes and failures and strive for a better future. We had to make some major decisions as a fire service. There were grueling decisions to not have annual conferences like FDIC and FRI, and even state conferences were impacted. I am sure these decisions were not taken lightly and were made in the best interest of the health and safety of the attendees and the departments they serve in. I know it was that way for our executive board in canceling the annual North Carolina South Atlantic FIRE RESCUE Expo (SAFRE). The fire service must continue to push for a culture change in health and safety through education and legislation, and we wanted to lead from the front showing we value our members’ health by not pushing further exposure to COVID-19 than they already receive in everyday emergency response.
In looking back over the past year since COVID-19 hit, we probably didn’t accomplish all of our priorities, and we know that 2021 will bring even more challenges and opportunities with new local, state, and federal elected officials and new strands of COVID-19 making its way into the U.S. We did make progress, though. I am fan of old church hymns and it reminds me of “Count Your Blessings” by Johnson Oatman: “Count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your many blessings, see what God has done.” So, we need to celebrate the small wins, and we will not temper expectations for the upcoming legislative cycle. We are going to continue the drive for more safety initiatives, better benefits, and more legislative support for all our firefighters.
One of the opportunities that has presented itself over the last year is preparing for the future, because the future is just around the next turn. This year has proven that we need to be prepared for anything that can be thrown at us. We need to use all our available resources, starting with looking in our own departments. How many departments looked to Millennials to help set up Zoom meetings, Microsoft Team collaborations, or Facebook Live training events? I have and will continue to stress to fire service leaders to plan for the future of their departments by growing and mentoring the next group of fire officers and chiefs. We aren’t going to be around forever, and we want our departments to achieve more in the future, not become stagnant or regress. Training and succession planning are key.
I am a huge fan of using sport analogies to compare to the business of the fire service. I am a UNC-Chapel Hill fan and enjoy watching the Heels play. The key to the best college basketball programs is the coach and his or her ability to prepare for the future. Most of the time, juniors and seniors are starters on your team. The freshmen and sophomores tend to ride the bench until they have learned and earned playing time. The coach helps to teach and prepare the next generation, molding them into leaders and teaching them how to be successful. The coaches ensure they get the freshmen and sophomores rotated into the games so that they are better prepared for their future roles. The coaches must take a vested interest in all the players to determine who will succeed and how they can help. It’s a never-ending cycle that repeats itself every year or two.
Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player ever (some Baby Boomers and Millennials may disagree). Jordan walked into a system at UNC where freshmen didn’t play. He immersed himself in the Carolina and Coach Dean Smith way, earning his way as the fifth starter. This was not because of his talent, but his commitment to hard work, willingness to be coached, and learning of the intricacies of the game. Smith realized his raw talent and molded Jordan into the player/leader he would become. When Smith passed, Jordan said: “Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than Coach Smith. He was more than a coach–he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father. Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him, and I loved him for it. In teaching me the game of basketball, he taught me about life.”
Are you, as fire chief or chief officer, being a good coach for your team/department? Are you prepping future leaders to lead your organizations when you’re gone, be it next week or 10 years from now? Have you pushed your people to strive for more training, strive to better themselves, and strive for excellence? Are you truly spending time and putting in the effort with these individuals? Did you have a Coach Smith in your fire service career who pushed you to excel and mentored you? I know that I have had a number in my career that I could never thank enough. We should all strive as leaders to have someone quote about us what Jordan quoted on Coach Smith’s passing. If we have that, then our career will be worthwhile.
So, step up your game and lead! Prepare your department for the future! Bring your future department leaders to the next FDIC or FRI conference, your state’s next annual conference, state weekends at the National Fire Academy, the NVFC Training Summit, or any of the hundred other training opportunities out there. Help them to grow as leaders and foster their success, not only for the individual, but for the entire department. It is up to each one of us to keep an eye to the future to ensure continued success.
In closing, Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi said: “The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual. People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society. Individual commitment to a group effort–that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”
I couldn’t have said it better if I tried. We all need to keep 2020 NCSFA President A.C. Rich’s NC SAFRE conference theme for last year “United by Purpose” on the forefront of our every action. We need to be united by purpose as members of our departments, united by purpose as emergency service workers, united by a purpose for federal and state resources and funding, united by purpose for legislative issues, united by purpose for social and cultural reform, and united by purpose for each other. Continue to grow your team and cultivate your department’s future leaders! God bless and stay safe!
Quentin Cash is a volunteer assistant chief with the Cherryville (NC) Fire Department and a career battalion chief at the Shelby (NC) Fire and Rescue Department. He also currently serves on the executive board of the North Carolina State Firefighters’ Association.