Even a casual glance across the rosters of the volunteer fire service reveals a pattern of family involvement. Family values and traditions play a large role toward an inherited desire to volunteer in the local fire department. It is not uncommon to see at least one father/son or brother/brother tandem on any fire department roster. In fact, I recently examined my region (60+ fire suppression agencies) and discovered a family tandem in over 75% of those departments. Many had more than one pair of relatives actively serving. The longevity and commitment to the fire service created by this type of family-based value shows in the number of these relationships that included one or more leaders of their respective organizations. My family, for example, includes a grandfather, father, mother, sister, cousin and daughter who either serve, or served the organization in some capacity, most rising to a successful position of leadership.
On my sixteenth birthday, I got a fire helmet from my parents. While that may seem a bit presumptuous, it was one of my most memorable gifts I ever received. I had already spent several years watching and learning. You see, my father was the fire chief; it was fairly certain that I would follow in his footsteps.
Those of you who have followed your parents into an “occupation” understand that often means more hurdles than advantages. The volunteer fire service is no different. The expectations are set much higher, and you can’t simple “stay home” if you didn’t feel like participating, without lots of explaining and guilt. Please understand that these represent the “good” part of having family in the business; built in motivation, insights into the behind-the-scenes issues, etc. It makes me appreciate the “generic”, non-family connected volunteer even more! Choosing to serve the fire department takes a lot of guts and commitment…and sacrifice!
The challenges that are even more difficult are the ones that come from outside the family, and outside the scope of evaluation of a traditional member. It is the expectation and assumption of the masses that an offspring of a leader has greater opportunity for advancement and acknowledgement, yet nothing could be farther from the truth. While I will admit that having a family heritage in the fire service certainly made me aware of the opportunities available to me, the path to success was certainly as difficult, and even MORE difficult because of the perceptions of nepotism that needed to be overcome.
I knew from the beginning of my career in the fire service, that I would have to work harder, study more, attain more certifications, practice more intently, be more uniquely creative, and set my own personal bar higher than most simply to overcome the assumption that I got something I didn’t earn. Hearing the phrase “…because you’re the chief’s kid” was something that made me so angry I could spit! That phrase was my motivation to rise above the presumption through endless hard work and personal accomplishment.
My father didn’t make it easy either. His fire service career is adorned with many great accomplishments that have made the Hostetter name well known in the emergency services network. I marvel at the number of people who I meet who give me that awestruck look as they ask, “Are you related to Glen?”, as if I am some sort of heir to a throne. It is a bittersweet feeling of being directly associated with such a great community leader, while never being able to step clear from the shadow he casts.
THAT, however, remains my goal. In the words of Napoleon Hill, “The strongest oak of the forest is not the one that is protected from the storm and hidden from the sun. It's the one that stands in the open where it is compelled to struggle for existence against the winds and rains and the scorching sun. In an effort to be that mighty oak, I have become so resistant to accepting help from the trees around me. I have steered away from the support and protection of one of the mightiest oaks I know in an effort to be strong, resilient, and self-sufficient. I have done so with such resolve that I have carried that independent characteristic into professional relationships beyond those between my father and me. Sadly, this independent drive is sometimes misinterpreted as isolation, unwillingness to work within a team, or “standoffishness”. Wow, spell check didn’t underline that word; I am glad someone understands me!
While it may seem noble and honorable to desire acknowledgement and reward based solely on individual measurable achievement, I have, once again, discovered that the world doesn’t always work that way. There is more than just black and white, there are many shades of gray that come from blending the measurable with the immeasurable. I can only hope that before my career ends, I learn to dip my fingers in the paint and smear myself a new opportunity that mixes my personal accomplishments with all those career boosting, wheel greasing traits that I have trained myself to avoid for the past 32 years. I just hope after all these years, my paint hasn’t dried up!