The biggest investment any fire department makes isn’t stations, apparatus or equipment, its people. When we spec out a new apparatus, we don’t just buy an engine because it has hose, a pump and a tank of water. We spend months, even a year or more, making sure it’s going to be just the right fit for our department. Compare that to how most departments hire or recruit new members. Career departments have potential candidates go through a written and a physical ability test to make sure they meet a minimum standard. An interview is conducted and often the applicant’s certifications and skills are considered. Volunteer departments also usually ensure that applicants meet certain minimum requirements, and in both cases there is typically some initial basic training and probationary period where the candidate must meet minimum skill and performance standards.
We often seem to be basing our decision on WHAT they are (a person with certain skills that meets a minimum acceptable standard) rather than WHO they are. But how do we know who they are, and how do we know they will be a good fit within our department? How do we know what they really believe, and does it match what our organization believes? What I am talking about here is values and character. We can teach someone the skills they need to be a firefighter or paramedic, but can we teach them things like honor, integrity, courage, duty, or excellence? Can we teach them to be passionate about being a firefighter, or to be the person who is willing to make the hard right decision in a difficult situation, or to be dedicated, diligent and to never give up?
Most of the problems departments experience with some firefighters has nothing to do with their ability to throw a ladder or operate a nozzle. When a firefighter gets in trouble, it’s usually because of a certain behavior, attitude or inappropriate decision they made. Many fire departments struggle with finding ways to motivate their members, to get them to want to train every day, to not be complacent on “routine” calls, to put aside differences and work as a team for the good of everyone, and to be passionate about becoming better firefighters and officers. Why then do we continue to hire and recruit based on skills rather than values and character? You can teach skills, you cannot teach character. But before you can recruit people who passionately believe what you believe and match the values of your organization, you must first know what you believe in and what you value.
Let’s take a look at an organization that is considered to be the best in the world at what they do, the United States Navy SEALs. Those wishing to join the SEALs also have to go through a series of medical screenings, written testing and a physical ability screening test, all with certain minimum requirements that must be met. Once selected, candidates are put through 21 weeks of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, or BUD/S, considered some of the most mentally challenging and physically demanding training in the world. In each class, 70-80% of those who start, do not finish. Throughout training, SEAL candidates must meet certain required physical and skill related requirements, however, typically of those that do not graduate, only 20% are performance dropped due to not meeting those requirements, while 75% are dropped on request (DOR). They voluntarily leave the program, which any candidate can do at any time by ringing a bell three times. The opening scenes of the movie “Lone Survivor” give us an inside look at SEAL training and how mentally and physically demanding it is. You can view it here: Lone Survivor Opening Scene: BUDs Training
While meeting the mandatory performance requirements is important, the SEALs are not necessarily looking for the guy who can run the farthest, swim the fastest, or shoot the best. They are looking for more. They are looking for candidates who believe what the SEALs believe, who share the same values. Every SEAL knows exactly what they value and what they believe in, and those values and beliefs match those of their team mates and the organization as a whole. Those values are expressed in the Navy SEAL Creed, which you can listen to here: Navy SEAL Creed
In the SEAL Creed, certain words and phrases stand out that identify their values and what they believe in, such as service, honor, trust, being physically harder and mentally stronger than their enemy, and the belief that they are NEVER OUT OF THE FIGHT. The training is so hard, because the instructors want to find out, not just who thinks they believe this, but who really believes it. They want to find those few candidates who can push through, who will not give up, who will dig down and find a way to win no matter what, and who are NEVER OUT OF THE FIGHT! The official Naval Special Warfare website states, “BUD/S, is designed to find and develop men of the strongest character who give everything they have to accomplish their mission and support the men on their team” (SEALSWCC, 2014). The U. S. Navy SEALs hire for values and character. These shared values are what makes SEALs unique and what enables them to be successful in the direst situations.
Now, I know, the fire service is not the U.S. Navy SEALs, but there is a lot we could learn from them. How do we motivate firefighters to go beyond the minimum required standard, to want to train every day, to be passionate about truly serving the people of our community, who are willing to do whatever it takes to be successful in order to help the organization succeed in its mission? The bottom line is…we can’t. We can only create the right environment through inspiring leadership, but we cannot create motivation, passion, character and values in people if they are not already there to bring out.
Rather than hiring/recruiting people who meet a certain performance requirement or skill set only, perhaps we should place more emphasis on hiring for values and character. Perhaps we should hire people who have the winning mindset and passion to be successful, and who share the values of our organization so that we know they will be a right fit, and then we give them the skills, knowledge and develop the abilities that will enable them to be successful. We may not be able to determine who shares our values and has the right character to be successful in our organization during the initial hiring/recruitment process, but during academy or Firefighter 1 training and the subsequent probationary period, there will be time to find out who they really are, and what their character is really like. Notre Dame Football coach Lou Holtz was known for putting together teams composed of players and coaching staff that were enthusiastic and passionate about the game and how they played it. One day a reporter asked Coach Holtz, “How are you able to get everyone to be so enthusiastic on your team?” Coach Holtz responded, “It’s really quite simple, I eliminate the ones who aren’t”.
But, before you can begin to hire/recruit people who believe what you believe, who share your organization’s values, you first must know what your organizational values are. Those values must be identified and shared by all, they must be communicated to your personnel and to the community you serve so everyone knows what you value and believe. This will help attract the right people, because as Simon Sinek says, “If you talk about what you believe, you will attract people who believe what you believe” (Dunn, 2010). But, more importantly your organization, and everyone in it, must live the values every day in everything they do, and every decision they make, otherwise they are only words, and mean nothing.
“If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But, if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood, sweat, and tears!” (Sinek, 2013). Find and recruit people who match your values, who are motivated, who are passionate, and who are NEVER OUT OF THE FIGHT!
Dunn, P. (2010). Starting with why. Buy1Give1: Creating a world full of giving. Retrieved on Oct. 31, 2014 from: https://www.b1g1.com/buy1give1/starting-why
SEALSWCC (2014). Official Naval Special Warfare website. Retrieved on Oct. 31, 2014 from: http://www.sealswcc.com/navy-seals-buds-training-stages-overview.ht...
Sinek, S. (2013). Work it, SOVA. Retrieved on Oct. 31, 2014 from: http://www.newsadvance.com/work_it_sova/power_thoughts/article_482a...