Monday, December 5, 2011

An Enduring Leadership Legacy……….


Having just returned from the 2011 Fall NWCG Leadership Subcommittee meeting in Tucson, Arizona, I have been reflecting on my experience over the last five years as a member of the subcommittee. Specifically, how Committee Co-Chair Jim Cook will be missed as a result of his upcoming and well deserved retirement.

For those readers of this blog that are unaware, Jim was one of the principle founders of this committee and has been the "point person" that led the development of the NWCG leadership curriculum. The development and delivery of this curriculum has led to an organizational culture change that has positively benefited firefighters throughout the United States and Australia. Jim Cook, Paul Gleason, Mark Linane and other wildland fire service leaders turned the tragedy that was the 1994 South Canyon Fire into an opportunity for all of us to better understand the role that human factors play and how they affect critical decision making on the fireground.

I first met Jim Cook in 1985 when he was the Superintendent of the Arrowhead Hotshots and I was a Foreman with the Kern Valley Hotshots. As a result of our hotshot crews being two of the four Southern Sierra region Type 1 hotshot crews, we had many opportunities to work together locally, statewide and nationally. However, I lost touch with Jim and many other wildland fire service friends and co-workers after the 1990 fire season as a result of my being hired by the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. Over the next 10-15 years, we would on occasion run into each other at retirement parties (more like hotshot reunions) and training sessions. I was honored and felt privileged to have been asked by Jim to represent local government on the subcommittee and was even more humbled to step in behind former USFS Hotshot and current Santa Barbara County Fire Department Crew Superintendent Mark Linane.

Looking back, what I admired most about Jim as his career progressed and eventually took him away from leading hotshot crews was his passion for improving safety on the fireline and I'm not talking about through the traditional means of the day. He and other wildland fire service leaders were determined to empower first-level leaders by way of their understanding and applying time proven principle-based leadership concepts in a way that had not been attempted in the past. Out of this effort and over the years was born the L-180, L-280, L-380, L-381, L-480 and L-580 curriculum. The leadership curriculum now targets every level of organizational leadership…..from the first year firefighter to those leading and managing large organizations.

The NWCG Leadership Subcommittee is primarily charged with managing this curriculum in terms of assuring that new and/or obsolete material is updated, the lead instructors are of the highest quality, etc. There is no way of knowing for sure how many tragedies have been avoided over the years the curriculum has been delivered, but speaking for my own agency, I have several anecdotal instances where fire captains and battalion chiefs have shared with me decisions they made that contributed to the positive outcome of an incident and that may not have occurred without their having been provided the leadership training. I have many more stories of how the leadership skills they developed as a result of the training have led to positive non-emergency-incident related decisions being made as well.

While having dinner and beverages with Jim and the other members of the subcommittee the night before everyone traveled home to their home units, we asked Jim to share with us how many firefighters he estimated he affected over his career. He immediately went about figuring out the math specific to his time as a hotshot superintendent. As it ended up, this was several hundred firefighters. It was at his point that one of the more tenured committee members reminded Jim of all that had been accomplished as a result of his leading this committee since its inception........this brought about a more reflective pause. Ever the humble guy, Jim thanked everyone for their kind words, and as anyone that knows Jim would expect, he immediately began deflecting any praise for his efforts and began to focus all of us on how we need to continue to innovate and advocate for improved fire service leadership.

Lastly, I want to personally thank Jim for his friendship over all of these years and for also including state and local government fire service agencies in the leadership/culture change initiative. The excitement surrounding these training courses is spreading quickly as was experienced when first introduced to the wildland fire community many years ago.

Jim Cook will be formally retiring from the USFS in December 2011. His retirement party will be held on February 19 in Boise, Idaho.

Jim leaves an honorable legacy behind him and I'm confident that those that know Jim and read this blog may have an example or two that they may want to blog concerning some of how Jim and/or his efforts behind the development and implementation of the leadership curriculum may have affected them personally and/or those that they now lead or those they have lead in the past.

Thanks Jim!!!

Brian Fennessy
Assistant Fire Chief
San Diego Fire-Rescue Department

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