Being Successful in the Fire Service

Take ownership of your actions

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By Dr. Candice McDonald

What does success in the fire service look like to you? For some, when they think of personal success, they picture power by becoming an officer; some imagine rewards and praise for a job well done; and others just want to make a positive impact on the community they serve.

The definition of success will be different to different members. No matter what success means to you, it is not something that will come easily. Researchers and subject matter experts offer countless guides on the steps you need to take to become successful. The common theme among all of these words of wisdom is Personal Responsibility.

There are specific things we can personally own that will control our outcomes of success in the fire service. It is important to take inventory of the things you are doing and the things you can improve on. The true key to success is taking ownership of your actions as you work toward your goals. Taking personal responsibility for the following will help you to have a successful tenure in the fire service:

Set Personal/Organizational Goals: Individuals AND organizations need to know where they are going in the future. If not, they will feel adrift with no clear direction. Goals can serve as our compass to success. Setting goals will help turn vision into reality. Clearly defined goals outline what you want to achieve and where to focus resources. It is important to document and post personal and organizational goals where you can see them daily. Written goals provide a visual for long-term visions.

Visualizing clearly defined goals allows you to schedule your time, allocate your resources, plan actions, and weed out distractions. Once you have set your goals, spend some time brainstorming the actions you need to take to obtain each goal. Plug in dates and times needed to complete each action step. Setting a timeframe will help you measure achievement and prevent you from getting derailed in your goal journey.

Create and Use To-Do Lists: Successful people are known to create AND use daily to-do lists. Daily to-do lists will help you stay focused on important projects and tasks. Each day you can rewrite your to-do list in order of priority. List everything that you must do, and place the most important tasks at the top of the list and the least important items at the bottom. Having a to-do list will help you stay organized, ensure you carry out all necessary tasks, and reduce anxiety that comes with task overload.

Celebrate the Success of Others: It is easy to feel envious of the colleague who was just promoted or scored a big opportunity. Learning to be happy for others and celebrating the success of your peers can be rewarding if you embrace it! You can learn so much by stepping back, embracing the success of others, and asking them questions about how they advanced. Use their success as a tool to educate and inspire you to achieve! Be a mentor to others who

are struggling or new, and help them succeed. One of the greatest gifts of leadership is empowering others to succeed and then celebrating their success with them.

Own YOUR Mistakes: Successful people know how to admit publicly when they mess up and develop a corrective action plan to ensure they don’t repeat the mistake. We are all human; we all make mistakes. What sets up apart is how we handle those mistakes. Never pass blame or try and cover up your mistakes. Being able to admit your mistakes will earn you the respect of your peers, your leaders, and those you lead. Learn from your mistakes and be willing to teach others what you learned.

Fostering Forgiveness: Learning to forgive and not hold grudges in the workplace can be really hard. There is true power in the practice of forgiveness that successful people have learned to harness. Conflict among fellow firefighters is bound to happen. We are a family, and families fight. Conflict that is not addressed can lead to decreased productivity and mental fatigue. Leaders who model forgiveness will create a culture that steers away from revenge and grudge holding. If forgiveness can’t be done independently, a third party may need to be introduced to conduct an intervention to address the conflict.

Continuous Learning: Continuous learning is key for staying relevant in today’s ever-changing environment. Attending conferences like FDIC International and professional development seminars; reading daily articles; and other learning opportunities can help you identify best practices, plan strategies for filling gaps, and increase competency. Failing to embrace new concepts can leave you stagnant in your career. Successful people understand the need to continuously invest in their mind.

Embrace Change: The phrase “This is how we have always done it” has been said in the fire service time and time again. The successful innovators in our industry are change agents; they continue to push outside of the box for the betterment of the fire service. Firefighters who embrace change by letting go of old methods and developing new ways of doing business can create more efficient organizations. Successful leaders who seize opportunities for process improvement and foster feedback can tackle the most complex obstacles. Opportunity seeking should be part of every conversation, and the success stories of those who innovate should be shared.

Keep a Journal: Journals are not just for crushing teenagers; they are kept by some of the most influential leaders in our country. A journal is a place to reflect, explore, and open your mind. It’s an opportunity to document your career journey. It provides a space to brain dump or release what is in your head. It is a place to develop business ideas, document gratitude, write down the traits of those leaders who inspire us, document the tasks we are avoiding or are fearful of, privately share the things that leave us unnerved, and script our dreams. Journaling can lead to growth through reflection and release.

Listen to Others: In a culture that is prideful in the ability to multitask, the art of listening needs to be actively embraced. Stephen Covey once said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Successful people understand the importance of making good eye contact while carrying on a conversation to show the person speaking they are interested in the message being delivered. Good listeners know to wait until a person has delivered all the thoughts before interrupting and asking a question. They know how to avoid distractions, such as cell phones and other things in the environment, and keep focused on the person who is speaking. Good listeners know to avoid assumptions and ensure they understand what is being said by repeating the message back to the person and asking if what they heard is being understood correctly.

Those who succeed in the fire service learn to master Personal Responsibility and understand a need to develop habits that will help them excel. Those who struggle fail to invest in changing the behaviors that hold them back from success.

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Dr. Candice McDonald has served her community for more than a decade as a volunteer firefighter/EMT, EMS officer, inspector, and PIO. She is the 2nd VP for the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association, trustee with Women in Fire, member of the FDIC/Fire Engineering Advisory Board, and Fire Corps State Advocate for the NVFC. She works for NASA in the Office of Protective Services as a special agent, physical security specialist, and contracting officer representative. She has a doctor of business administration with a specialty in homeland security, a master’s in organizational leadership, a bachelor’s in organizational management, and an associate’s in human services

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