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What word seems to strike fear into the hearts of firefighters everywhere? Change. Career or volunteer, senior man or rookie, the word sends up red flags and defenses whenever it is mentioned. We tend to be skeptical of the person proposing change as maybe something has been tried (and failed miserably) in the past. We see it as an infringement on our operational status quo with which we are quite comfortable. Some departments even view their resistance to change as some kind of badge of honor.

But what if we took the word change and substituted the word opportunity? Change, according to the dictionary can mean “to make or become different”; opportunity means “a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something”. We tend to view our surroundings and think of all the things that we don’t like and thus need to change. In other areas we look around, find satisfaction with what is occurring, and make the choice that nothing needs to change.

If we are looking at the surroundings to determine the need for change, then we are really looking at opportunity. We identify some things that make us unhappy, displeased, or uncomfortable. Those are opportunities awaiting. We see other things as positive, worthwhile, and functional. These are opportunities that were seized and acted on previously. In other words, we changed something when the opportunity presented itself.

Change has a negative connotation whereas opportunity tends to be positive. Granted, there is good change, and sometimes an opportunity turns out negatively. But generally speaking, we tend to see change in a darker light while opportunity gives us hope and excitement of what might be possible.

The fire service has an oft-used phrase that states “200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.” The number of years changes depending on who is speaking, but the connotation remains clear. We firefighters resist change.

Why? Fear of the unknown, fear of leaving the known. Comfortability with what is, discomfort with what might be. Thinking we have already arrived, an uncertainty of how to get where we are going. Understandable hesitance, outright resistance. Whatever the reason may be, we feel justified in our position.

Yet, what might be the outcome if we substituted change with opportunity? A mental shift to the positive and away from the negative. Is it possible that something like this could affect our culture in a positive way?

Look at the circumstances in your department that are affecting morale, working conditions, culture and so forth. It is possible to do something about them. In other words, there are possibilities that exist. Opportunities. It is up to us to choose if we will do something positive or negative about those circumstances. Will we take the opportunity to improve, or will we use the opportunity to remain the same?

There is nothing wrong with staying neutral provided we have looked at the opportunities objectively and determined that passing is the best option. If our choice is just based on fear or closed-mindedness then we are selling ourselves short. There is nothing wrong with passing on one opportunity for a better one; issues arise when we are waiting for the perfect opportunity that seldom seems to actually occur.

Take a look back at some of the opportunities that you or someone in your department took advantage of. You know, they saw something and changed it. Is your department better or worse now than it was 20 years ago? If it is better, then change came in the form of opportunity that was seized. If it is worse, then there are currently opportunities waiting to be acted on that may bring positive change.

What might be the outcome if we started taking the energy that is consumed in change resistance and started applying it to opportunity embracement? Why do we spend our time avoiding what will inevitably occur; what if we were to use the time to create a better way of doing things? To be fair, it is frustrating when you or a small group is trying to move the department forward and create better opportunities for the members and you continually run into adversaries of change. You can see the path, the vision, the goal; communicating it and dealing with the resistors can often suck the life out of you. But to just throw up your hands and say “Oh well, I tried” and then quit accomplishes nothing. Remain focused on what is good, right, and necessary.

Attempting to seize an opportunity for betterment must not be a one and done kind of thing. In the fire service, as in every area of life, the ones who get what they want are inevitably the ones who persevere, who stay the course, or who squeak the loudest. Those who are most vocal or antagonistic against change will prevent the department from moving forward.

Be the voice of reason that speaks louder, clearer, and more passionately. Have the right motives behind pursuing opportunities; motives that are selfless, thought out, and based on true need are a good place to start. Just because an opportunity presents itself does not necessarily mean it should be acted upon. Do the research to see if this opportunity is truly right for your personal development, your department, your citizens. Don’t be afraid to pass on something. Pass based on having done due diligence not because you are afraid of the unknown.

There are opportunities awaiting action in every department. The opportunity may be small and relatively unnoticed or it may have significant ramifications on how the department functions. Take the time to look objectively at that opportunity, get involved, and see how things may improve. The advancement may be minor but it is progress nonetheless.

Change does not have to be feared if we begin to think of it as an opportunity to improve ourselves or our departments. Determine where you are and where you want to be. Act on the opportunities that present themselves to reach your goal. Change your mind to embrace opportunity. Don’t fear change, utilize opportunity.

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