Monday, July 4, 2011

Is there a link between golf and firefighter safety?

Could playing golf improve your fireground situational awareness? One study seems to suggest so. While playing golf with his son, a neuroscience researcher began to contemplate the nexus between what it takes to achieve success on the golf course and how that might apply to firefighters.

After all, the principles of situational awareness should be universal, he hypothesized. What would this look like? Based on previous research he had conducted with firefighters, he already knew that situational awareness was developed and maintained on three levels:

Level 1: Capture the most critical clues and cues (not ALL… just the most critical ones).

Level 2: Process those clues and cues (perhaps melded together with some less important things that are being observed) to form an assessment of the current situation.

Level 3: Make predictions of future events, by running mental models (mental movies) of various outcomes. Pick the one that has the best possible outcome and put that plan into action.

He was on the third tee box when he had this revelation. Consciously he thought to himself: “What are the most important clues and cues I need to gather for this shot – Length of the hole, hazards to avoid, wind direction, best landing spot to set-up the next shot. That’s the short list he thought as he surveyed the landscape. (Level 1 Situational Awareness: Capture clues and cues).

Then he began to contemplate what all of those clues and cues meant when they were put together. The hole was a par 4 which meant it was too long for him to reach with his first shot so driving the green was out of the question (option eliminated). There was a lake running down the left side of the fairway (hazard to avoid). The right side of the fairway was relatively open with a few trees that could present a challenge if the ball were to land behind one of them. The wind was coming from right to left at about 5 mile-per-hour. This was valuable information because a high shot (with a lot of hang time) might cause the ball to drift toward the left (where the water hazard was). Based on these factors and the green/pin location, he determined the best landing spot would be somewhere on the right side of the fairway. (Level 2 Situational Awareness: Putting together all the clues and cues from Level 1 to assess the current situation.

Finally, a club selection had to be made based on all the previous factors. Would it be the driver? No, too risky. Would it be a 9-iron? No, not enough distance would be gained to allow for the green to be reached on his second shot. The researcher settled on his 5 iron and he took a couple of practice swings. For each practice swing, he imagined the club striking the ball perfectly and the trajectory of the ball leading it right to the intended landing zone. He had ran a mental model – making a prediction of the future (Level 3 Situaitonal Awareness: Projecting future outcomes).

As he was in the middle of his backswing… “FOOOOORRRRE!” came echoing across the fairway. But it was too late, he was mid-swing and while he heard the scream and knew that it meant there was an incoming ball from another golfer on the course, he could not stop the momentum of his swing (even though he knew he should). But the yodel, nonetheless, drew his conscious attention to the possibility of being struck by the wayward shot. He had been, effectively, distracted… one of the leading causes of lost situational awareness on the fireground had reared its ugly head on the #3 tee box.

{{{ Plunk }}} was the awful sound made as his ball landed in the lake on the left side of the fairway, just as the erratically struck ball from the other fairway rolled right up on to the very tee box the researcher stood on. The golfer/researcher was overwhelmed with frustration, both at himself and with the other golfer who had been so discourteous as to yell right in the middle of his backswing.

Once I calmed down... er... once he... HE calmed down, he realized that developing and maintaining situational awareness on the golf course is more like situational awareness on the fire scene than he had ever previously imagined.

If there were ever a reason to play more golf, this is it! Happy Independence Day.

Fire Chief (ret.), Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP
Chief Scientist, Public Safety Laboratory
Executive Director, Center for the Advancement of Situational Awareness & Decision Making

P.S. I picked the ball up off the tee box, put it in my pocket, and considered it just compensation for my pain and suffering.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The value of having a personal mission statement

The best way to predict your future is to create it. It has been proven over and over again that we move in the direction of our most dominate thoughts. If those thoughts are of pessimism and failure, we will behave in pessimistic ways and drift in the direction of failure. Our mental voice compels our actions.

Conversely, if our thoughts are of optimism and success, we will behave in optimistic ways and be compelled in the direction of success.

Think about the inner voice that is driving your thoughts… and actions. Like it or not, you have become exactly what you tell yourself you are. I doubt many successful people see themselves as failures. Likewise, there probably aren’t very many failures who see themselves as successful. If you don’t like where you are in life you can change it. Start with your mental programming.

An excellent first step is to develop a personal mission statement – a testimonial of who you are. Or perhaps better stated, the ideal self you want to be. State it in the presence tense and focus entirely on the positive aspects of who you are. Here’s an example:

I am a highly respected and successful ___________ (fill in the blank). I am well-respected by my peers and professional associates. I am a loving partner and parent who respects the individuality of my family members and support them wholeheartedly.

You get the idea. There’s no limit to the size of the statement. The number of elements should relate to the most important aspects of your life: Spirituality, family, vocation, health, interests, etc. It’s not necessary to put the items in priority order so long as you capture all of them. Some aspects of your personal mission statement may not represent who you are today. It’s more likely going to represent who you want to become. Some parts of it may represent who you are today, so long as that is who you want to be.

As you do this, write it down, print it out and post it in prominent places – on your refrigerator, on your bathroom mirror, on the dashboard of your car, on your computer terminal. While you should memorize your personal mission statement, you should also write it and read it out loud over and over again. This stimulates multiple senses. Writing it is tactile stimulation. Reading it is visual stimulation. Reading out loud is auditory stimulation. The more senses you stimulate the deeper the message will be seated into your subconscious memory.

Your positive self-talk will lead you in the direction of doing things that achieve your personal mission statement and, best of all, toward becoming the person you really want to become. The best way to predict your future is to create it and that starts with a personal mission statement that drives your actions.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP
Executive Director
Center for the Advancement of Situational Awareness & Decision Making

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Seek first to understand...

Seek first to understand…

Here’s an exercise you can do at an officer’s meeting to help your supervisors improve their coaching skills. Give them the following scenario:

“You have a subordinate who is misbehaving. In one sentence, write how you would handle it.”

Then have each of the officers report out on what they would do. As each tells how they would handle it, keep score by putting a hash mark beside one of the following three categories (though don’t share the categories with them until all the answers have been given).




All of the responses will fall into one of the three categories above and if your session is like most I facilitate in my leadership develop programs, you’ll see that most of the responses fall into the first category.

If that happens, you will have a teachable moment. The best officers/supervisors are those who seek first to understand, then to be understood (from Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).

All too often an officer wants to jump right into the solution to the problem… telling… informing… instructing… and advising… usually with a healthy dose of threatened disciplinary action for non-compliance to the officer’s demands. Talk about the set-up for a bad coaching session.

The best officers seek to understand why the behavior is happening and then try to work with the subordinate to develop an action plan to improve the performance to meet the acceptable standards of the organization. That, my friends, is the set-up for success!

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP
Executive Director
Center for the Advancement of Situational Awareness & Decision Making

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Situational leadership: Using the right tool

How to handle a particular personnel situation is often the topic of interview questions for promotion. These can be difficult to answer because the question rarely contains all of the information needed to make a good decision. This can work to your advantage or to you disadvantage depending on how you choose to resolve the use.

In most cases, the short answer to how you’d respond to a personnel issue should be “It depends.” However, if you stop there you’re probably not going to score well on the interview. Take the response to the next step and share with the panel what it depends on. What are the critical criteria that are essential to evaluate to make a good decision.

Say “It depends on additional information that provides the critical criteria that would help me make a quality decision. In this scenario, that criteria would include…” and then list the things you would consider when evaluating the situation and how you would respond. There are many ways to handle problems and each scenario is dependent on the situation.

The best leaders have many tools in their toolbox to help them build and maintain successful organizations. If their only tool were a hammer, then every problem would look like a nail. If a hammer is your only tool, you’ll end up using the hammer on a board that needed a saw. This will cause you expend unneeded energy because you used the wrong tool. You may eventually shorten the board by beating it until it breaks. Obviously, there’s a better way to get the task complete. Use the right tool, at the right time, in the right way, under the right conditions. That’s situational leadership!

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP
Executive Director
Center for the Advancement of Situational Awareness & Decision Making

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Control your reactions

Many times throughout my career I have been in a position to promote (or not promote) firefighters into positions of leadership. Sometimes the decision was hard because I was blessed with a number of highly qualified candidates. Other times the decision was easy because I had one candidate who stood out among their peers.

In communicating the decision to the candidates who were not selected, I have noticed the bad news presents an opportunity for a reaction on their part. How they react to the bad news is what I want to address.

Some of the candidates reacted in a way that was so positive and professional that it actually made me regret that I did not promote them. I saw a level of maturity that was absolutely impressive. When I have witnessed this, I have gone out of my way to give this candidate personal time and attention to help ensure the next time I have an officer position open up, they will be the leading candidate. In the bad news I saw their potential shine.

Some candidates, on the other hand, reacted in a way that was so negative and so unprofessional that it confirmed to me that I had made the right decision. I saw a level of maturity that was very unimpressive. When I have witnessed this, I have assured myself that the right decision was made not to promote this person and affirmed this person will likely never be promoted to a position of leadership. A little bit of bad news caused them to self-destruct. That’s not the kind of leader I want on my team.

If things don’t go your way, maintain your professionalism and fashion a positive, supportive response, even if you have to fake it. Being a loser hurts but you should invest great effort in ensuring you use your pain to compel you to address your shortcomings and to become a better qualified leader. If you take that pain and decide someone needs to pay a price for the injustice you faced, your behavior will only affirm to the boss the right decision was made. You may not control what happens to you, but you are in complete control of how you react to what happens to you.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP
Executive Director, Center for the Advancement of Situational Awareness & Decision Making

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Managing up the chain of command

Anyone, in any capacity in any organization can display the qualities of leadership. To be a leader is to influence others to see things in a different way or to use influence to compel change.

One of the best ways to influence change in an organization is to bump the ideas up the chain of command. How you do this will have a significant correlation to your success. Many bosses don't like their underlings telling them what they should be doing or what direction they should be leading the organization. So, best to avoid being so blunt with the boss.

A better approach is the soft sell. Wait for the time to be right and then float the idea past the boss. If you're really coy about it you can actually do this in such a way that the boss thinks the idea was his or hers. If you can do that, it's far more likely to get traction. If the idea doesn't take hold. Don't become too pushy. Rather, be patient and wait for another opportunity for the idea to be floated. This time you might say "The solution to this problem is very similar to the ideas we were talking about a few weeks ago." Notice... you don't say "MY idea..."

You'll be amazed how much you can get accomplished through your boss when you don't care who takes the credit. If you want a better organization, let go of the credit and let all your good ideas become your boss's ideas. With some finesse, it is possible to manage up the chain of command.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP
Gasaway Consulting Group

Monday, January 17, 2011

Reflections on the Utah Winter Fire School

I just returned from presenting three days of leadership and safety programs for the Utah Winter Fire School, hosted by the Utah Valley University. As professional speaking is my vocation, I have many opportunities to present at fire schools each year around the country. This allows me to see fire schools that are amazingly well organized and some that are, well, scary.

The Utah Winter Fire School falls into the category of the former. The hosts were easy to work with and clear and timely with all their communications with me. They picked me up at the airport, took me to dinner, and made sure I got checked into my hotel room without any issues. These are especially nice gestures for out of state instructors that I appreciated very much.

But the thing that amazed me most about the program was the briefing the instructors received in the morning on the first day of the school. There, the Incident Commander provide an Incident Action Plan to the instructors and school support staff. They had all the bases covered and personnel were asisgned to attend to every detail.

I had two minor problems in my classroom, one involved the size of my projection screen (too small) and the other involved needing a cable to connect my computer to the overhead sound system. For both items my issues were treated like the school's top priority and were resolved within minutes.

At lunch time, there was a buffet provided for the instructors which kept me from having to wonder away from the convention center to areas of town that were unfamiliar to me. This also allowed me to eat quickly and get back to my classroom to meet with students who may have questions about the morning program.

There were no details overlooked by the staff. They had a professional registration area set up, distributed name tags on lanyards, gave out copies of the state's training magazine, and had a really nice vendor area (and the vendors sponsored meals and snacks).

Above all, everyone was amazingly nice and accomodating. If I was asked once, I was asked a dozen times if I needed anything or if everything was ok for me. And when they asked, it was genuine, not just something to say. The students were equally impressive. They were engaged and eager to learn. They asked really good questions and were good sports when I joked with them.

This was my first time ever presenting in Utah and for the Utah Valley University. I feel as if I returned home from one of the best experiences an instructor could have. In a word... impressive.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP

Monday, December 6, 2010

Five things to prepare for advancement

Recently I received an inquiry from a fire officer who was looking for advice about what he could do to prepare for career advancement. After some reflection and notetaking, I spent the majority of my time figuring out how to get the list down to five. Here they are (listed randomly).

1. Accelerate your learning:

a. Read top rated leadership books (get them from the library for free). Some of the classics will be available on audio book).

b. Read a book on the fundamentals of supervision (not the latest and greatest fads book... a book on tried and true fundamentals.

c. Read Fire Engineering, Firehouse and Fire Chief magazines (on-line content is free).

2. Broaden your perspectives by exposing yourself to new ways of thinking:

a. Attend a business seminar that is not fire-related (Fred Pryor-type).

b. Visit websites where innovative thinkers are celebrated (

3. Rehearse your performance:

a. Create scenarios (management and fireground) that you have to manage through. Script out your course of action, then critique your performance.

b. Record yourself (audio and/or video)... depends on the scenario and play it back and watch/listen to your performance. Rate it and make a plan to improve.

4. Learn from the mistakes of others:

a. Avidly read near miss and line-of-duty casualty reports. Vividly imagine yourself being there where things are going bad. Don't be a judge of what happened. Try to understand why it happened and how you could prevent that happening when you are in charge.

5. Develop a mentor relationship:

a. Find someone to serve as a mentor... someone who has accomplished what it is you want to accomplish. Learn from them. They've made mistakes. Learn from that. They've done things that work well. Learn from that.

b. Have someone you can turn to when you are faced with a challenging situation and you want a sounding board for how to work through it.

c. Consider hiring a coach to help improve your performance and help you prepare for advancement.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The greatest gift

What is the best gift you’ve ever given or received? Was it clothing, jewelry, electronics? Recently while attending a class the speaker asked the attendees this question. I spent some time in quiet contemplation. As we went around the room some of the answers were pretty impressive – a new car for graduation, a vacation for an anniversary, the birth of a healthy child. No one could argue against the fact that all of those things were wonderful gifts.

When the facilitator got to me, my answer was different. The greatest gift every given to me has been the gift of someone’s time. It’s the most valuable thing they can give me for it is irreplaceable. If someone gives you a beautiful gold watch that costs them a thousand dollars, that would be an amazing gift. However, the person is likely to be able to replace the money they spent on the watch. The gift of time is irreplaceable.

When someone gives you the gift of their time, remember they could have given that gift it to someone else or kept it for themselves. But they didn’t. They gave it to you. When that happens, remember to thank them for choosing to give it to you.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The power of story telling

Have you ever attended a class where the presenter was so dry that you felt like you were being punished to be there? I attended one such session at a conference recently. The program material was interesting but the presenter was brutally boring. He was trying to impress the audience with his "expert" knowledge on the topic, citing one study after another instead of establishing himself as an expert.

I came away with the opinion this person had read a few articles, and maybe a book or two on the topic and was trying pull off being an expert. It didn't work.

I think what as missing in this program was this "expert's" ability to relate real-life experiences with the subject matter through richly told stories that let the audience know he'd not only stayed at a Holiday Inn Express but he had REAL experience on the topic.

Expert presenters can connect with an audience in amazing ways when they are master story tellers. They can reach the attendees on an emotional level which enhances learning and the storage of information into memory. One of the very best story teller's I've ever heard was Zig Zigler. His presentation style leaves the audience holding on to every word and wanting more.

The presenter in my example left me bored and disappointed. I felt cheated out of my time. Even if he had expert knowledge (which is debatable) his style of presenting surely was novice.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Stop using the "Reply to all" button.

Have you ever had this happen? One of your associates is in need of some information so they show resourcefulness and send out a broadcast email to a group of 20-30 people seeking an answer to a question.

Some of the people on the list, for reasons that I can only fathom relate to ego or ignorance, hit the "Reply to all" button and send their pearls of wisdom to everyone on the original distribution list.

Do you REALLY have to clog up 30 people's email in boxes with your genius? You're making a big assumption if you think we had any interest in the original question in the first place. And you're making a monumental assumption if you think we want to know your answer. Here's a hint... WE DON'T!

Stop hitting the "Reply to All" button when someone sends out a broadcast email for information. Reply to the sender and if someone on the distribution list wants to know the replies, they can ask the original sender to forward the good replies on to them.

Perhaps the only thing worse is when two people on the distribution list decide to carry on a conversation about the question and in the process hit the "Reply to all" with every one of their messages. You may think we are interested in your private (now made public) conversation. Here's a hint... WE'RE NOT!

I'm sure I speak for a lot of people when I say... STOP THAT!

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The value of networking

I had a wonderful morning. I got the opportunity to meet and network with another professional speaker/consultant. It was refreshing to learn that our two worlds are very similar and that many of our challenges are the same. I enjoy learning how others have achieved success in their lives and about the turns and bumps they've had along the way.

This particular person is exceptionally upbeat and I enjoyed drawing energy from his demeanor and outlook on our profession and his passion to help others achieve success.

During the discussion I learned of some new opportunities for the delivery of programs to audiences from his circles and he learned of similar opportunities from audiences in my circles.

It was truly a win-win networking session. We never know what opportunities are just around the corner or who we may meet that can open doors and windows for us. I am thankful for having made this new connection, with a new association, and maybe even a new friendship. A couple hours in a coffee shop well spent.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP

Monday, September 6, 2010

On Dependability

To be dependable means you can be relied on to perform your duties properly and timely. It also means you can be trusted by others to get the job done. To be dependable, one must support the rules of hte organization and follow the chain of command when addressing issues and concerns.

A dependable person gives every assignment their best effort toward the achievement of high standards of performance. To be dependable a leader must set the example of dependable performance.

I have had the pleasure to work with some very dependable firefighters and fire officers. And, sadly, I have also had the misfortune of working with people who talk a good game but deliver very little. They make hollow promises and try to fool others that they are an A-player. You can imagine which of the two were most enjoyable to work with. Be dependable.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Personnel Size-Up Helps Situation Awareness

The issue of under staffing is a hot topic these days. Staffing reductions are one of the impacts of our struggling economy. On a number of occasions I have discussed this topic – mostly from the perspective of budgets and politics.

Now, it’s time to look at the stark reality of how staffing can impact the situation awareness of commanders. In my book on Fireground Command Decision Making, I discuss one of the most surprising findings of my research – how significant the impact of staffing is on command situation awareness.

One of the essential tasks of a commander at any emergency scene is to conduct a size-up. Commanders are taught to look at things like building size/type, construction material/features, smoke/fire conditions, contents and life hazards. One of the things that is RARELY taught to developing commanders is the “Personnel Size-Up.”

The Personnel Size-Up is the commander’s assessment of what tasks can be safely accomplished based on the personnel on-scene. If you’re being realistic, you know that all crews are not created equal. Crew size, quality, training, age and fitness all impact a crew’s abilities. When the crews arrive it is important to size them up. Is the crew on Engine 1 the “A Team?” Is the crew on Ladder 3 from the “Island of Misfit Toys?”

If you work on a department with on-duty staffing, this size-up can start at the beginning of the shift when you see the roster of who is working on each piece of apparatus for the day. If you are a member of a department where the staffing responds from home, then you do not have the luxury of knowing the quality of your crew until they arrive. A Personnel Size-Up will help you make that determination and set realistic expectations.

One of the essential components of good situation awareness (and decision making) is being able to predict future events based on current conditions and actions of your personnel. In other words, getting out ahead of what is happening now and looking at where things should be five our ten minutes from now.

The quantity and quality of your staffing impacts your predictions of future events. The assignment you give your A-Team might take them 3-5 minutes to complete while the same assignment given to your Island Dwellers might take 10-15 minutes (and it will probably be done wrong).

As a commander, conducting a Personnel Size-Up will help you set realistic expectations of crew performance and the resulting future events. This, in turn, helps you maintain strong situation awareness.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP

For more Information:

YouTube Video Clips from a Situation Awareness Presentation

Podcast on Situation Awareness

[Author's note: This blog post was also posted at]

Friday, February 5, 2010

The measure of success

How does someone measure success? Some would say by the accumulation of stuff (houses, cars, boats, and other motorized toys). Others might say by size of the bank account (inclusive of stocks and bonds). I disagree with both.

I was told a very long time ago by a very wise person that I should measure my success by how much I help others succeed. In other words, the more I help other people achieve what they want in live, the more successful I will become. It took me a while to grasp on to the concept that helping other people be successful would some how make me feel successful.

However, having embraced that philosophy for nearly 30 years, I can honestly say it does work and I feel incredibly successful for having helped so many other people achieve their goals. In just the past several months I have provided coaching to three persons who want a career in the fire service. As their coach, it’s not my job to tell them what they want to hear. It’s my job to give them the unvarnished truth about their chances of success and how to improve those chances.

I also had a conversation with an associate of mine whom I helped with some advice more than 15 years ago. I told him that when he became successful, he would have an obligation to help someone else the way I helped him. The purpose of his call was to tell me that he had done for someone else exactly what I had done for him so many years ago. And so, the cycle repeats itself. Helping others makes me feel successful. Give it a try. You may be amazed at how good it feels to help someone else get what THEY want.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP

Friday, January 22, 2010

Strategic Planning is like Vacation Planning

Think about what it takes to plan a vacation. You have to consider who’s going with you; what you’re going to do; when you’re going to go; where you’re going to go; why you’re going in the first place; and, how you’re going to get there. In other words, the five W’s and an H (who, what, when, where, why, and how). The same is true when you think about strategic planning in your organization.

As the leader of the organization, you’re the driver or pilot, or engineer (depending on the mode of transportation you select) and the members of the organization are on board (hopefully) and going along for the ride. To get them on-board (i.e., buy-in) requires commitment and preparation on their part. They may have to be convinced, especially if they don’t know where the organization is going and why.

Think about if you wanted someone to go on vacation with you but you did not share the details of the five W’s and the H. Can you see how they’d be concerned and perhaps lack commitment to blindly follow you? To follow blindly in any direction is scary. You can run into trouble, you can get hurt, you can fail and look foolish.

If you want to have the best success with the strategic direction of your organization, get the members involved in the process of setting the direction and then communicate all the details of where you’re going, how you’re getting there, why it’s important to go there… you know… the five W’s and an H.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PHD, EFO, CFO, MICP

[Note: This posting can also be found on "The Bleeding Edge of Change" at]

Friday, January 1, 2010

When will the jobs come back?

If there is one thing about the recession that has caused my heart to ache it’s the reduction in firefighter staffing in many communities. Some economists have argued that economic downturns can force businesses and governments to examine their operations and find more efficient ways to operate. On the surface that sounds good. We want our governments to operate efficiently and we want to be good stewards of the public dollar.

However, the budgets of many fire departments have been chiseled away over the past ten years and all the while these departments were taking steps to reduce expenses and improve their efficiencies. Stated another way, they have become mean and lean, finding creative ways to provide the most essential services with minimal staffing. There was no more proverbial blood in the turnip. So, when cities looked for the next round of cuts there was nothing left to cut except personnel.

Now we’re being told by the economists and the federal government that the recession is over. So what is to come of fire departments in a post-recession (recovery) period? Will the jobs come back? My prediction is they will not (at least not in the short term). I am not a pessimist and I so much want to see the jobs of my brothers and sisters restored.

In my travels I have kept tuned in to what local leaders have been saying, both publicly and privately. This is what I hear them saying… Fire departments have been over staffed and over funded for years and the recession gave elected and appointed leaders the opportunity (a good excuse) to cut out the “excess” with a good reason to propose reductions (the economy). Some of these elected and appointed officials give me the appearance they are actually smug and gloating in their successful attempts to reduce the size of the fire department.

Some fire department leaders have vocally opposed the reductions. Some leaders have resigned their positions or retired out of protest. Union leaders have stood their ground, but only with marginal success.

So when will the jobs come back? My prediction is the jobs will return very slowly, if at all. I also predict that it will take a crisis to reinstate firefighter (and for that matter police officer jobs). We all know this type of reaction is commonplace. There has to be an incident that results in serious injuries or fatalities. Then, and only then, do the elected and appointed officials begin to take grief from their constituents and the calls for action are heeded.

My concern is this: Firefighters are sworn protectors of humankind. Firefighters are wired for action. And unlike some elected and appointed leaders, firefighters will not play politics with the lives of residents. All of this spells the potential for the crisis previously mentioned to involve the lives of firefighters.

I am hopeful that firefighters and their command officers are having meaningful discussions about how the strategies and tactics should be adjusted based on cuts in staffing. I fear that firefighters will continue to fight fires the same way they always have and that is the recipe for a disastrous outcome.

To all my brothers and sisters I ask you that in these challenging times, if your department’s line staffing has been reduced, work smarter and discuss among your colleagues how to adjust your standard operating procedures. Remember that you mean the world to someone… act accordingly and take steps to ensure you safety.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP

Monday, December 14, 2009

Have a back-up plan

If your career is in fire or EMS you have one of the greatest jobs possible. Having spent 30 years in the fire service, maybe I am a little biased. All things considered, it’s a pretty good career path. But what if something happened that meant you would not be a firefighter any more. Maybe you are involved in an accident that leaves you disabled. Maybe you have a heart attack at a young age that leaves you unable to return to work. Maybe you’ve been “downsized” as a result to the current economy. Maybe you unexpectedly find yourself working for a psycho boss and you decide to quit instead of enduring the stress of working for the boss from hell. Perhaps you were lucky enough to get hired at 18 and now you’re 50 and you can retire and move on to a new chapter in your life. Whatever the reason, you’re now a civilian again. Now what are you going to do?

There are many ways you can find yourself unemployed. Some may be planned. Some may not be. Regardless of where you are in your career, it would be wise for you to pause and say to yourself: If I could not be a firefighter, what else am I prepared to do? How else could I earn my living? How could I support my family? How would I find satisfaction in life? It is not the first day you wake up unemployed that you want to give thought to these questions.

One of the best pieces of advice that was given to me early in my career was: Have a plan B. Develop another skill or acquire knowledge or training that will prepare you to do something else… just in case. This advice was given to me during a time when I was contemplating switching my major in college from business administration to fire science. I was already two years into the business program when the desire to be a firefighter-paramedic overwhelmed me. I was completely consumed by the desire to serve. I was getting some awesome experience working for several fire and EMS departments. It was a good time in my life. I was having lots of fun. There was nothing more I wanted than to be a firefighter-paramedic.

I talked with a trusted advisor about switching majors to fire science. Surely that would help me get hired full-time on a fire department and help launch my career. My advisor was a firefighter and an instructor so I just knew he would be on-board with my decision to change my major. But he wasn’t. In fact, he strongly discouraged me from switching my major to fire science. I wasn’t expecting to receive that advice.

But when he explained his logic, it made perfect sense. He explained that a degree in fire science was not an essential component to getting a fire job. But, having a college degree would likely give me a few extra points in the hiring process. He explained that a fire science degree would be useful so long as I worked for a fire department but it would not have much usefulness if I ever moved on to doing something else. A business degree, on the other hand, would have usefulness within the fire department and would also open other doors of opportunity if I ever could not be a firefighter.

I was young and full of enthusiasm to be a firefighter. The thought of doing anything else never crossed my mind. I didn’t want to imagine that such a scenario would ever happen to me. Nonetheless, I valued his advice. After all, he had a good career in the fire service and his degree was in secondary education. So how could I argue with his logic?

I stayed in the business program and graduated with degrees in finance and economics. Then while serving as a volunteer firefighter-paramedic and company officer I continued in school and earned my master’s degree in business administration. Then came my big break… I got hired into my first full-time fire department job… as the fire chief. Talk about starting at the top! If I didn’t have 10 years of solid, progressively responsible volunteer experience and a master’s degree in business administration I don’t think I would have been a contender for the job. So my career was underway. But all the while, in the back of my mind there was the constant reminder of the sage advice from my mentor: What would I do if the day came when I would no longer be a firefighter? What was my Plan B?

That voice would nag at me. I can vividly remember him saying: Be prepared. So I went back to school again, this time to earn a doctor of philosophy degree. I had lots of friends and professional associates ask me why I would do such a thing, especially this late in life and with four school-aged kids at home? I knew I needed to have a solid Plan B. I needed to have something else to do when that day came.

To be fair, it was not only the additional education that helped prepare me for that day. I also started teaching classes and writing for journals early in my career (before the creation of Internet magazines and blogs). The more I wrote the better writer I became. The more I taught the better teacher I became. This was coupled with my insatiable desire to learn and for continual self-improvement. I read everything I could get my hands on. I attended every class I could. I never passed up an opportunity to teach a class or to volunteer for an assignment.

My upbringing in a family of blue-collar hard-working, whatever-it-takes steelworkers was evident in my work ethic. I didn’t realize it at the time I was growing up, but being in an environment of hardworking parents was also preparing me for my Plan B career. Unlike some, I was fortunate that my Plan B was just that… a plan. When I went back to school for my PhD I knew that when I completed this degree it would be time to put my newly acquired education to use and that would not be possible in a capacity of my current job. Completing my terminal degree would signal a graduation celebration… a graduation from school… and a graduation from the fire service career I had enjoyed for 30 years. It was a good run… and it felt good to have a plan. It felt even better when my plan came together.

All of this because 28 years ago I had a mentor who convinced me I should have a strong Plan B. That advice put me squarely in the driver’s seat to set my own destiny. Now I am doing work that I absolutely love and I feel so accomplished. I have more time for my family. My stress level is significantly lower and I feel like my consulting, teaching, writing and podcast messages are making a difference toward improving firefighter safety and fire service leadership. My blessings are many… because I had a Plan B.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Leaders are readers

I recently had an opportunity to have dinner with another fire chief who has enjoyed much success in his career. He’s visionary, well-respected and gives much of himself back to our profession by traveling and teaching classes. I asked to define and describe a common trait that he sees in leaders as he travels the country. He told me the best leaders are avid readers of everything they can get their hands on: Books, journals, newspapers, even the magazines on the airplane.

I have to agree with this chief’s assessment completely. I have been an incessant reader throughout my entire adult life. I stash books like squirrels stash nuts. I have a couple on the nightstand in the bedroom, several on the end table in the living room, a few in my car and a couple in my computer bag. I typically read 4-5 books at a time. Maybe I’ve got ADD, ADHD or OCD. Whatever the reason, I can never remember reading just one book at a time. Maybe it harkens back to the habits formed in the formidable years when teachers would assign homework that required the reading from multiple books. Who knows?

My favorite types of books are those that inspire me to greater achievement. I enjoy books about leaders who have overcome adversity and those who have had successful careers. I like self-help books that give me ideas for making incremental improvements in my own performance. I may read an entire book and only extract one good thing I can use from it. But that one thing may be a golden nugget. Some of the best gifts I have received were books. Many I still have and re-read regularly. Some were so good, I had to give them away.

As much as I read books and journals, I don’t spend much time with the newspaper. I find reading the newspapers depressing. It’s always chocked completely full of bad news that I prefer not to read. I find my disposition being dragged down when I read about all the crime and troubles of our world. I’m not in denial that such things exist, I’d just rather not dwell on it. For the same reason I don’t watch much television either.

I am reminded about a discussion I overheard recently where the topic was the economy and the conversation was focused on two previous economic recessions, one in the early 1980s and one in the early 1990s. I didn’t remember there being recessions in the early 80s or 90s. I had to go look it up. In the 1980s recession unemployment was slightly over 10%. In the 1990s recession unemployment was just under 8%.

Hmmm. How could I not remember this? Surely it was big news at the time. Guess I was too busy living life and wasn’t too worried about all the bad news that was happening around me. I didn’t read the newspaper or watch much TV then either. I guess I didn’t know I was supposed to be depressed over the economy. I bought things when I wanted them and I didn’t worry much about the recession.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP

[Note: This article was also posted on The Kitchen Table blog.]

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Hee Haw Logic

When I was a kid there was a comedy-variety show on television called Hee Haw. It was a show that was essentially senseless humor and the kind of program you could watch if you didn’t need much mental stimulation but just wanted to enjoy a laugh. One recurring segment of the show was in a barber shop where the barber would have a person in the chair giving them a shave and would tell them a story about something that happened in the town. The barber would say something that was bad news and the customer would say “That’s bad.” Then the barber would say “No, that’s good” and proceed to explain why that which the customer perceived to be bad, was actually good. And then when the barber was done explaining the good news, the customer would say “That’s good.” Then the barber would say “No, that’s bad” and proceed to explain why hat which the customer perceived to be good was actually bad.

So it goes in life. Everything good that happens to us has some element of bad and everything bad that happens to us has an element of good. It’s all in the matter of your perspective. Some people can, so effortlessly, find the bad news in anything that’s good. Take, for example, the conversation I had with someone yesterday about the weather here in Minnesota. It’s mid-November and our typical temperatures would be somewhere between Brrrr and Oh-My-God cold. While I’m teaching a class we take a break and I walk outside. The weather is amazing! It’s brilliantly sunny and the temperatures are in the 50’s (very unusual for Minnesota in mid-November). I made a comment about how beautiful the day is and someone says “Ya, if it just wasn’t so windy.” This comment made me think about how some people can find fault as if they get a reward for it.

This day was, indeed, a blessing and someone was still able to find a way to complain about it. Was it a “perfect” day. No. But is it reasonable (or necessary) to expect perfection? Isn’t “good enough” sometimes good enough? This day should have exceeded everyone’s expectations for warmth and sunshine. Yet, for this one person… still not good enough.

People who go through life with a disposition like this person’s miss some of the greatest treasures that are laid at their feet because they’re too busy looking for the bad things in life. One thing’s for sure, if you go around looking for bad news and faults in people, you’re going to find them. Likewise, if you go around looking for good news and gifts in people, you’re going to find that as well. And YOU… are one of those people. Look for the bad qualities in yourself, and you will focus on them. Look for the good qualities and you will focus on those.

When something good happens to you and you say you were “just lucky” you are discounting all your good qualities and giving credit to happenstance. Acknowledge that the good things that happen are because of your preparation and hard work. When something bad happens to you, don’t dwell on it. Find the good in it (and there always is something good about everything bad that happens) and focus on how to use that good to your advantage.

In the spirit of Hee Haw, here’s an example of a recent day in my life that demonstrates the banter from Floyd the barber.

- I was driving to a meeting today and amazingly there was hardly any traffic on the road.

- That’s good.

- No, that’s bad because I got a flat tire and there was no one around to help me.

- That’s bad.

- No, that’s good because the first car that came by stopped to help me.

- That’s good.

- No, that’s bad because the guy was taking his kids to school and didn’t have time to stop and help me out.

- That’s bad.

- No, that’s good because he offered to give me a ride to a service station at the next exit.

- That’s good.

- No, that’s bad because I had to sit next to one of his kids who spilled chocolate milk all over my new suit coat.

- That’s bad.

- No, that’s good because I took off my suit coat and tie and when I went to my meeting later that morning the client (who I was trying to impress with my new suit) commented on how at ease he was with my casual attire and that helped me secure a very large client.

Life is ten percent of what happens to you… and ninety percent of how you react to what happens to you. In every good, there is bad. In every bad, there is good. Keep you mind occupied by the good and it will propel you in the direction of success.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP
Gasaway Consuting Group

[Note: This article was also published on the Kitchen Table blog.]