Be Your Own Hero

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Captain Angela Hughes, Baltimore County (MD) Fire Department, began her keynote address on Wednesday by inviting audience members to join her in an imaginary trip to FDIC International 2027 and then reflect on how they had changed in the preceding decade. This virtual flight, she suggested, could serve as a bridge audience members could use to gradually transfer themselves to a place where you “Become your own hero.” This process begins by finding someone to chase. “That person is YOU,” Hughes said. “Create a life of mission, and determine your purpose and legacy.”

She provided the audience with a roadmap of the experiences, key persons, events, and lessons learned that led her on the path to professionalism and the discovery of her mission. She categorized them under four rules.  

Rule 1. When you figure out your mission, act on it. Don’t delay. Under this rule, Hughes cited the following goals:

Find a mentor. This is the place to begin. Find “someone to look up to, someone who will be a trusted advisor, an experienced person who will have your back, tell you when you mess up, and celebrate your victories with you. A trusted advisor will challenge you, point out your flaws, and sometimes push you to the point where you may want to give up, but your mentor won’t let you.”

Develop the right attitude. She shared the advice of one of her mentors, Chief Rick Lasky: “If we are doing the right thing, we have to do it for the right reason.”   

Identify your “brick walls,” and convert them into strengths. Hughes identified what she called “brick walls,” attitudes, behaviors, or other challenges that may be keeping you from being the best firefighter you can be. She related how her “brick walls” ultimately led to lessons learned and were transferred into positives that led her toward her career objectives. These shortcomings can take many forms such as not knowing or disregarding department regulations, missing crucial information on a call dispatch, jeopardizing yourself or other firefighters through your actions, acting on the premise that YOU have something to prove, indifference toward or not supporting your fellow firefighters.  

All acts of kindness matter. If you have something to give, give it now. Hughes discovered that a part of her mission was “to pay it forward” and be part of something bigger. She wanted “to become a part of a proactive network, dedicated to education, mentoring, and developing future leaders in the fire service—to invest in others just as her mentors had invested in her. This quest ultimately led her to “iWomen, “whose mission statement was directly in line with her desire to be a part of something bigger”; it is a proactive network for men and women that encourages success. She joined iWomen, later served as a trustee, and now is its president.   

Every person here has something unique to bring to the fire service. She challenged audience members: “Step out of your comfort zone: submit an article, write a blog, or submit to teach. Find a way to make a positive change in the fire service, and go for it. Brick walls are not there to keep us out,” she stressed. “They are there to teach us and to show us how badly we want it. I found my brick walls; I broke through them, and it’s changed my life!”

Rule 2: Find a mentor; then become a mentor.

Rule 3:  Invest in yourself! The greatest gift you can give yourself and the community you serve is continued education, Hughes noted. It takes passion, drive, and commitment to keep growing, learning, and going forward. Attend conferences big and small. Never stop learning, and be a perpetual student. When you get back to your department, share what you have learned.

Rule #4 – Be a person of moral integrity–all the time. Hughes defined integrity as doing the right thing for the right reason, even when it’s not popular or when no one is watching! Misconduct, she said, erodes trust. “When firefighters make the news for misconduct, the public hears and remembers. Any type of misconduct hurts the department and tarnishes all firefighters. Integrity develops trust. The public we serve and our teammates depend on us and place their trust in us. In turn, we must trust our teammates.” Everyone in the fire service, Hughes added, is responsible for upholding the reputation of being trustworthy and respectful not only on duty, but off duty as well.”

Hughes summed up her message by citing a portion of Linda Ellis’ poem “The Dash.” The dash represents the dash between the date of your birth and the date of your death on your tombstone. The dash, the poem states, “matters most of all because it represents all the time you spent alive here on earth.” Hughes issued her final challenge to the audience: Be proud of how you spend your dash. In 2027, will you be living the dream or in the same, exact place you are today? Make this the day you decide to be your own HERO!

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