Bobby Halton delivers what the vision of a firefighter should be
"Now more than ever before it is critical for us to live up to the expectations established long ago of what it means to be a firefighter." Fire Engineering Editor-in-Chief and FDIC International Education Director Bobby Halton
In his welcoming address at today’s Opening Session, Chief Bobby Halton, editor in chief of Fire Engineering and FDIC International education director, initially directed the audience to words spoken by then general of the U.S. Army Douglas MacArthur in 1962:
Duty. Honor. Country. These three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, and what you will be.
Halton, noting the “lively and spirited discussion on tactical options for structural firefighting” being engaged in by “good firefighters, by people who care passionately about the fire service and our mission,” suggested that the fire service members shift their focus more toward “what they ought to be, what they can be, and what they will be” instead of what firefighters do.
Each of the two sides of the tactical issue—the position based on science and the position based on fireground experience and historical evidence--is “an approach that is well-founded and has great results on the fireground,” Halton said. Although the discussions are lively and passionate, Halton noted, he has met everywhere he has gone “dedicated firefighters on both sides who get it, who understand, appreciate, and respect both points of view.” He lauded the passion, differing views, and discussions. “We should celebrate and rejoice that so many care so deeply and are not intimidated or hesitant to engage, to question, and to inquire. Discussions, arguments, and respectful exchanges ensure we don’t go blindly down any path, good or bad.”
However, Halton expressed concern that spending so much energy on the tactical debate, focused on what firefighters do, may be taking resources away from developing “a clear sense of ourselves as public servants with responsibilities and opportunities that are unique to us.”
“Most of us go day by day working very hard in developing the essential skills of our mission,” Halton explained. “But many of us miss that all important critical step of developing an awareness of how our growing sense of confidence and competence relates to the essence of what a firefighter can be. What we all need--not only our younger firefighters and newer officers--is a template, a guide, a role model, a vision, of what being a public servant, and particularly a firefighter, means today and, most importantly, what we may become in the future.”
How do you go about forming this template? Halton noted that his generation’s vision of the firefighter was shaped by legendary firefighters like John O’Hagan and Leo Stapleton. “We carried around and quoted our treasured dog-eared copies of Fireground Tactics by Emmanuel Freed and Firefighting Principles and Practices by Bill Clark. The examples of these legends’ lives became our visions and helped us have proud and honorable careers.” Our vision of what it meant to be a good firefighter, buoyed by the examples of these legendary leaders, and enhanced by advances in technology and science lifted us and helped give our service meaning, Halton explained.
Our current systems are obsessed with what we do physically to solve problems in the moment, Halton said. “We need to combine what we mean and what we represent to society in the greater sense along with what we do. Now more than ever before it is critical for us to live up to the expectations established long ago of what it means to be a firefighter. In doing so, we are blending education and training, character and competence with inspiration and aspiration. That blending creates a vision of what a firefighter can be.”
Halton lamented that living in a culture that “puts a premium on solving problems in the moment instead of constructing a viable and livable philosophy of life” is a handicap for the fire service. Thinking in the present tense rather than considering the past or assessing the future portrays an unreal world where all problems can be presented and solved at the same time, Halton explained. This focus solely on the task level, Halton noted, creates a stagnation in our intellectual curiosity and our personal development, begins an atrophy of our ability to remain excited about our incredible industry and its mission, leaves us ill-prepared to create answers to all the old questions so that those questions never get solved, and makes us less capable to adapt to change and more inclined to pick a side rather than accept and explore an opportunity. But, he added, “building a vision of our future selves as humble and courageous servants is a powerful antidote to this stagnation and these unacceptable outcomes. By remaining curious about our history and those incredible stories of our principles and virtues in practice, we can learn how a true national servant, a true firefighter should be.”
Studying the lives of truly honorable firefighters will help us learn how they thought and acted, Halton pointed out. We will also discover that today’s problems have been thought about before. In our search for self-vision, good firefighters move beyond the occupation of firefighting seeking to be exemplary human beings who just happen to be firefighters. History and our philosophical roots make it clear that these two tactical opinions on mission and safety are not irreconcilable and are two sides of the same coin, Halton noted.
Halton included real-life accounts of individuals who had made a choice between risk and personal safety and had been killed or severely injured in choosing to help members of their team in a military or emergency setting and employed the following quote from Aristotle:
The more thou dost advance, the more thy feet pitfalls will meet.
The Path that leadeth on is lighted by one fire--the light of daring burning in the heart.
The more one dares, the more he shall obtain. The more he fears, the more that light shall pale--- and that alone can guide.
From these individuals, “we can gain a vision of that fire, that light of daring, and what it looks like in action by examining those who had to gauge risk versus reward,” Halton noted “The daring,” he interjected, “comes from a deep sense of humility, a sense that only through service and sacrifice can one truly give back. This is the kind of character that puts the mission first, teammates second, and yourself last.”
Halton asked the audience members to be “the true vision of the firefighter who is committed to being competent, who is confident of his/her character, who is devoted to honorable service, and who is loyal to his/her fellow firefighters.”