My One Word For 2016: Improvisation

Discover your one word to simplify what you do and inspire you to do something new

A couple of years ago I read the book One Word that will Change Your Life. And it did.myoneword

Since then, instead of a New Year’s Resolution goal I choose one word to focus on for the year. It’s more visionary than just setting goals, and it becomes my guiding principle or ethos.

The Difference Between Goals and Visions


Goals are specific and measurable. We like to call them SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound). They have endpoints and once achieved, you’re done. Goals tell us WHAT we need to do.

Here’re a couple of examples of goals:

  • I will read 2 books each month
  • I will loose 10 pounds by April 1, 2016


A vision, on the other hand, is more of a broad idea of HOW you will look or feel in the future. It’s HOW you imagine yourself. Unlike goals, it’s not specific but very open-minded. A vision is harder to put into words, but somehow, it’s a little easier to encompass with one word.

My Previous One Words

In 2014 I chose simplicity, first because I was approaching retirement from my fire department, and second because I had been diagnosed with cancer (this was my second battle in 14 years) and was now responding positively to treatment. That year was the beginning of a major transformation in my life style. Reducing some of life’s clutter, including debt and stuff, and adapting to a less decision-intense world would make my life simpler.

For the year 2015 I remembered the Jimmy Buffett song, Survive. This was a year full of unexpected health snags that attacked my body and my mind. And while I had my share of struggles (recovering from major surgery and being diagnosed and successfully treated for a third time with cancer) in 2015 I did survive. So that was a good word for that year.

My One Word For 2016

Each of my one words has become a foundation to build on for the next year, and this year’s word lifts me even higher. My 2016 word is simply improvisation. Now that I am well into my transformation from a full-time firefighter (I’m still teaching and writing) and feeling better, I will spend less time planning or dreaming and more time doing. I will make more leaps and venture farther and experience new things. I will step outside of my comfort zone.

Discover Your One Word

Using the one word concept can help you, your family, your team, or your organization simplify what you do and inspire you to do something new, better, or more fun. Here are a few resources to help you find your one word:

Read the book One Word that will Change Your Life

Watch John Saddington’s Vlog One Word: Team


Reading Is Back!

New fire leaders are waking up to the fact that they are in charge of their own leadership growth

There’s a cultural shift coming on in the fire service: Books and reading are on the wave of the future.E33 Bookmark-crop

The big professional publishers and conference industry doesn’t get credit for this. Oh, they’re hardworking and certainly blast the message (and products) onto the scene. Credit goes to the new fire leaders, who are passionate and seem to be collectively waking up to the fact that they are in charge of their own leadership growth. That’s called self-leadership.

If you believe that “good” leadership is important, then self-leadership will help you get there. Be part of a trend and read more!


The fire service never leaves anyone behind. Our nation should do the same.

Congress, listen to “the people” and do the right thing!

From Paul Combs:

Daily DRAWN BY FIRE – This illustration was first published in 2010. I find it heartbreaking, discouraging, and infuriating that I can republish it today! The Zadroga Act is not a political football for the House to fumble – contact your Congressional rep and demand they stand up for what’s right. This illustration and message has been forwarded to my Congressman Bob Latta (R) Ohio.

Here are a few articles on the latest… I’ll post more as I get time.

House committee’s revised bill to renew Zadroga Act draws opposition from Democrats

This Powerful Image Shows Why Jon Stewart Is Fighting So Hard For 9/11 Heroes

Zadroga Act Adovcates Make Final Push For Renewal As Congress Deadline Looms

Be very careful what you ask for, you may get it… and get it… and get it…

Firefighters are problem-solvers; they always have suggestions. Fire chiefs need to know what’s needed on the front lines, and who better to tell them than the firefighters working on it.

How do fire chiefs get the right information to tackle the right problems?

They don’t get it from inside of a box. They get it by breaking down the walls, working across divisions, and developing true teamwork and collaboration. They build a “team of teams.”


Gallant actions by firefighters battling fire while bullets and bombs rained down on Pearl Harbor.

Official U.S. Navy photo of firefighters battling the fire on the U.S.S. West Virginia that was started by Japanese torpedoes and bombs in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.


What We Learned From Each Other About Building A Command

3 days of training on how to calm the chaos at a mega event

It all began with a high rise fire at the Phoenix Towers on Singer Island, Florida. Fire crews knew the building and had responded their many times for this type of event, a fire alarm. What they thought might be a routine alarm, suddenly became a mega event, full of the chaos that comes from a high rise building where upper floors are filled with smoke and lots of occupants need help. They also discovered they needed some help too.


The Phoenix Towers condominium on Singer Island, Florida. Photo by Billy Schmidt.

The Riviera Beach Fire-Rescue Department serves the City of Riviera Beach, Florida, which includes Singer Island. The Department has 4 stations located throughout the city, each housing a fire suppression unit and a medical transport unit. Every day there is a minimum of 17 personnel on duty including one battalion chief. It’s a diverse city that keeps the fire department busy on any given day.

The fire occurred at 1721 hours on a Sunday evening in a 25-story residential high-rise building. Initially dispatched to a fire alarm, units arrived and reported “nothing showing from the exterior.” An investigation revealed a smoke detector activation in the penthouse and several residents stating there was smoke in the hallways on the upper floors. Requests were made by the first-arriving crews to upgrade to a high-rise response and for additional units to assist with evacuation. The requests were denied by the responding battalion chief because there were multiple other calls in the city at the same time and their resources were stretched. The crews ascended the stairs and confirmed the presence of light to moderate smoke on floors 14 to 16. When they reached the remaining floors they encountered heavy smoke and several occupants needing assistance. The battalion chief arrived on scene and assumed command. The crews informed command of the smoke conditions and again requested more units for assistance. Command requested that dispatch upgrade the alarm to a full high-rise response and to send additional units for assistance. After some time, the crews found the origin of the fire and extinguished it with a dry chemical extinguisher. Resources from surrounding agencies, including tactical units and command staff, arrived on scene and assisted with ventilation and the successful evacuation of all occupants. There were no civilian or firefighter injuries or deaths. The entire incident lasted approximately 6 hours.

Adaptability is Important on the Fireground

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. -Helmuth von Moltke

We pre-plan the building and train for the situation. But things rarely go exactly to plan. That’s why it’s important that we are observant and adaptable in every situation. Our preconceived notions about what is going to happen, because we’ve been to this fire alarm before, are likely to change before we even get started.

Complicated incidents, a fire alarm at a high rise with lots of occupants, quickly becomes chaotic when things don’t go according to plan. Critical cues, unexpected things, begin to appear that trigger a revision to our initial plan. Sometimes, the event outgrows our ability as a single fire department to safely and effectively apply the operations and support needed to bring order to the chaos. Building a strategic command team while working with other agencies can be cumbersome, but is necessary to establish a manageable span-of-control and provide for comprehensive resource management. Like firefighters, fire departments must be adaptable.

From Command To A Team

There are new rules for engagement in our complex world, so says General Stan McChrystal in his book, Team of Teams. The ability to react quickly and adapt is critical, and its becoming more important in today’s fire service. Mega events, such as high rise fires and terrorist attacks, require new ways to communicate and work together. All agencies, fire and police especially, must learn to break down the silos, work across jurisdictional lines, and master the flexible response that comes from teamwork and collaboration. They have to be able to work as a “team of teams.”


Agencies must learn to break down the silos, work across jurisdictional lines, and master the flexible response that comes from teamwork and collaboration. Photo courtesy of Artie Werkle.

Practicing And Growing Together

In recent years, fire departments in Palm Beach County found themselves confronting more dangerous and complex incidents than ever before, requiring different levels of effort from all agencies and credible emergency management capabilities county-wide. The fire chiefs and training officers in the County recognized this and decided to do something about it. A county-wide command training program was created to improve incident scene management capabilities that would save lives and protect property, combine individual fire department efforts and increase resources, enhance jurisdictional flexibility to handle large-scale events, and provide for a safer, more accountable emergency scene.

The command training was modeled after the National Fire Academy’s Command & Control series, using a case method practice and decision-making exercises. Regardless of size or current capabilities, all fire departments within the County were invited to send personnel, with focus on potential incident commanders. This inter-agency approach would create an environment for open discussion and collaborative learning. The goal was to build stronger command teams to better handle mega events.

Using the Case Method and Staff Ride Concept

Fire instructors teaching incident command often use stories drawn from historic emergency events that will enliven their presentations and illustrate their points. Much of it is lecture with exciting pictures or video and little, if no student interaction or critical thinking. Instead, this county-wide command training promoted the use of decision-forcing cases that would enhance awareness, strengthen decision-making, and empower action from the front line officers.


Decision-forcing cases enhance awareness, strengthen decision-making, and empower action from the front line officers. Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

The purpose of staff rides are to further the development of fire service leaders. They are planned learning events that recreate previous incidents at the actual site of the events to produce a fireground analysis in three dimensions. It promotes maximum student involvement through a pre-study of the incident and the building, an instructor facilitated site visit, and an instructor facilitated dialogue session.

Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

Staff rides are planned learning events that recreate previous incidents at the actual site of the events to produce a fireground analysis. Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

 What We Learned From Each Other

The recent fire at the Phoenix Towers on Singer Island was the motivation for the latest county-wide command training hosted by the Riviera Beach Fire Rescue Department. Having facilitated the previous county-wide command training sessions, I was asked to help with this one. Over a three-day period, firefighters, company officers and chief officers from a variety of fire departments came together to review and practice command operations at a mega event. Using the recent fire at The Towers as a case study, participants worked as teams in a strategic decision-making exercise to identify the problems, communicate clear objectives, and implement executable plans to manage a high rise fire.

Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

Over a three-day period, firefighters, company officers and chief officers from a variety of fire departments came together to review and practice command operations at a mega event. Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

The incident at the Phoenix Towers was a big event. While the fire was determined to be electrical and not large in scale, the smoke it produced filled ten floors and required the evacuation of approximately 20 residents. Here are some of the lessons we learned:

  • Recognize the size of the event and call for additional alarms early to reduce the reflex time for needed apparatus, personnel and other resources on any large building or long duration incident.
  • Expand command before the demand. Preemptive actions to front-load a command team will ensure rapid, concise decisions and actions.
  • Build trust between strategic commanders (chief officers) and tactical units (company officers) to better evaluate and act on the CAN reports and information provided by on-scene units.

It’s great to see so many fire departments come together for a common purpose. These are the people who will be out there handling these mega events and the more training they can do now, the better success they will have in the future. I plan to continue working with all fire departments to help them build better command teams that will calm the chaos.

Report From Engine Co. 82: Read The Book, Get The Shirt

Hooks & Irons Co.
November 17, 2015

Like many young firefighters, reading Report From Engine Co. 82 inspired me and helped me better understand the culture of the fire service. Many years later, as a chief officer who promoted intentional reading, I re-read it and purchased several copies and passed them on to others. I’ve also read Dennis Smith’s other books that explored the 1906 San Fransisco earthquake and fires, the history of firefighting in America, and firefighters’ lives in their own words. Who better than a firefighter to help us learn and discover the history and meaning of the fire service.

Hooks & Irons, also, is a firefighter owned company that understands the importance of knowing who we are and where we come from. Their mission is to help “celebrate the traditions and history of the fire service,” and they do that through a story-telling blog and the sale of firefighting merchandise that “reflects the beauty and history of our job”. Read their blog on Report From Engine Co. 82 – Remembering A Classic. I wear one of their hats and a couple of their shirts.

Read the book Report from Engine Co. 82 and buy the shirt Engine Co. 82 from Hooks & Irons.

Get and read other Dennis Smith books here:


What makes someone fail as a leader? Not their physical skills or their mental toughness. It’s when their EGO becomes too big.

Listen to Leif Babin and Jocko Willink explain how leaders can get control of their egos. Learn to own problems and own the solutions.

Get their book, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win and read it.

Found this video at Firefighter Close Calls.

Old school, same as new school.

So much is new in the fire service: smarter technology, stronger equipment, more efficient techniques, and safer gear. But our greatest challenge, our real purpose, remains the same: to save lives and to protect property.

Old school, it’s pretty much the same as new school.