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Flashpoint: September 2014

My first Flashpoint column for Fire Fighting In Canada, back in September 2007, started with this quote by Dr. Kent M. Keith from his 1968 booklet for student leaders, The Paradoxical Commandments: “If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.”

August 28, 2014
By Peter Sells

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My first Flashpoint column for Fire Fighting In Canada, back in September 2007, started with this quote by Dr. Kent M. Keith from his 1968 booklet for student leaders, The Paradoxical Commandments: “If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.”

I am sorry to say that this will be my final column as a regular contributor to FFIC. I hope is that over the last seven years some good has come to the Canadian fire service through the more than 100 columns and blogs I have contributed, and through conversations they triggered around fire hall kitchen tables. Along the way, I was certainly tagged with many labels and suspected of many hidden agendas, but I anticipated that when I took this on.

It happened like this; I met Laura King, the brand-new editor of FFIC, in the spring of 2007 at the FFIC golf tournament. After a few conversations, we agreed that I would write an opinion column; I was to take on current issues in the fire service, analyze them critically, and give my perspective on why those issues mattered and how they could be addressed.

There were several reasons why these columns and blogs were successful: Laura and I took pains to ensure that I had my facts right and could back up any stated position; we stayed in touch regularly; and when needed, we reacted quickly to late-breaking incidents (more than once, putting finished pieces on the back burner or holding them for later).

Over time, as Laura learned more about the fire service and developed her unparalleled network of contacts, she helped me become a much better writer. She has my undying gratitude for giving me latitude and putting up with my attitude.

Since this is a retirement address of sorts, let me give you my spin on some things that you often hear at retirement parties. “I have been proud to be a member of the greatest fire department in the world.” That you are proud of your service is admirable, but the rest of it is misplaced and even harmful. The chances that your department is the greatest in the world are miniscule. Your pride should not be in recognizing the greatness of your organization, rather it should be in continually striving to make it better and better … and even better.

Here’s another one; “I wouldn’t change a thing, I have no regrets.” Seriously? No regrets? The only way that is possible is if you played it safe every time, took no risks, never coloured outside the lines, always did things the easy way – if you were a follower, not a leader. Leadership always involves risk and change always involves some level of pain. People with no regrets are people who never made any mistakes. People who never made any mistakes are people who never made any hard decisions. There are a lot of things I wish I had done differently, some of which I regretted almost immediately and some only after years of reflection. Without those regrets, no learning takes place.

In that first column, I reflected on the closing address given by now-retired Chief Dennis Compton of Mesa, Arizona, at my first IFSTA Validation Conference in 1997. Compton reminded us that the work we had done that week – writing and editing hundreds of pages of fire textbooks – would save firefighters’ lives. I have often wondered how many lives I have saved or injuries I have prevented because somebody did something right or didn’t do something wrong because I taught a lesson, wrote a paragraph or delivered a lecture. I will never know this, of course, but I know that my motivations were always honest and my efforts were to do good work.

This doesn’t mean that you have heard the last of me. I will make contributions to FFIC from time to time, although from a distance. For the next few years I will be helping to build a new fire/rescue academy for the civil defence organization in Dubai. I will have a spare couch if any of you happen to be in the area.

Finally, as a nod to my comrades from the original Toronto Fire Department, here is my version of the “mop speech.” Fire is the only job that I know in which you can start out on the end of a mop and end up as a training officer, chief officer, management consultant, author, columnist, and international speaker.

Do the good work anyway.


Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire-service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo


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