As the modern world demands new methods and techniques, we can easily forget the natural and universal principles that lead people not just to perform and produce for the good of the department and the city but to truly living meaningful fulfilled lives. Applying the four components of the fire tetrahedron we learned back in cadet school, we can identify four areas that fire service leaders must never forget.
I was 15 years old when I started as a firefighter in the border town of Nuevo Laredo in México. With a population of over a quarter of a million people, we had only three fire stations and four old fire trucks. We were ill equipped and salaries were below minimum wage. My first set of bunker gear was a 1960’s long coat, rubber boots, work leather gloves, and a 1970’s helmet. Official training was nonexistent. I learned from our senior firefighters and officers – most of the time the hard way.
Despite the deficiencies I felt safe and protected by the group especially by my Lieutenant Heriberto Dominguez. His work was inspiring. He sparked my desire to stay in the fire service. He always behaved professionally and his image was always impeccable. He was very competent and above all, he was a true friend – like an older brother to me and I wanted to be like him. As fire officers, you never know when the opportunity to change someone’s life will come. Always be ready to be someone’s spark.
#2 – FUEL
One day I walked into the Laredo Texas Central Fire Station to inquire on how to become a Firefighter there. I was living in Mexico, I didn’t speak English, and I was still a minor. I wasn’t even attending school at the time. My spark began to smother. By the grace of what I believe to be a higher power, I met the Fire Chief from Hidalgo Texas. Chief Juan Reyes gave me the opportunity of a life time to become a volunteer in his department. In time he sponsored me and let me attend the Regional Fire Academy. Chief Reyes really took a chance on me. Through his opportunity, Chief Reyes fueled my firefighting career and in 1997 I became a Texas certified Firefighter.
#3 – Oxygen
After graduation I became a full time firefighter with the Pharr Fire Department and joined the Edinburg Volunteer Fire Department. The people in these departments took my career to the next level. They provided the oxygen that my inner fire needed to grow. They made sure I knew that I was important to them.
#4 – Uninhibited Chain Reaction
It was in McAllen that my hunger to grow and serve rose to the next level, all through the support and guidance of my officers. I felt that a chain reaction of growth began to take place uninhibited from any of the challenges we face in the modern fire service. I felt I was ready to become a Chief Officer myself and I decided that once there I would pay it forward in appreciation for those that made it possible for me.
It is good to move up in rank, but true leadership has a cost, and that cost is to let go of self-interest. Our people need to trust that we will take care of them. The only way our personnel will trust us is if we establish good and honest interpersonal RELATIONSHIPS with them. So go on and be someone’s spark, fuel, and oxygen like somebody did for me. The chain reaction will create self-sustaining leaders that will continue to pay it forward and solidify the cycle of leadership into the future.