Maybe this isn’t the proper forum for a topic such as this, however personally, I believe it is. Perhaps the reason I do feel so strongly about this particular subject is because, quite frankly, I struggle with it – it’s called Imposter Syndrome, but we’ll get to that later.
Five years ago, I promoted to District Chief (the same as Battalion Chief in some organizations). With that promotion came the responsibility of being placed in charge of a program. And in my case, Technical Rescue and HazMat were the programs
I grew up in my fire service career as a rescue technician and diver. I had trained to the level of HazMat Technician, however, it was never really something I gravitated towards. So, when I was informed that I would be in charge of the regional HazMat team and not water rescue, I was not particularly happy about it. In fact, I met with the Chief to basically tell him I wasn’t taking the responsibility.
The Chief was patient and gracious while I ranted and cry-babied about how I was not the guy to handle this HazMat program. When asked what my reservations were, I simply answered that I hadn’t performed a HazMat operation in over ten years and was no longer accustomed to the ins and outs of HazMat. Basically, I hadn’t put a suit on in a REALLY long time.
After hearing me out, the Chief simply told me that he didn’t need another technician. He needed a program manager to which I replied, “Yeah, okay. I can do that.” Thus, began my HazMat odyssey.
I felt very unqualified for my position and to some extent, still do. Sure, I may not have been suiting out, but I did need to have some foundation of understanding as to what I would be sending my personnel into. So, I did what many of us do in this day and age: I began searching the endless abyss of HazMat on the web.
I found some great articles, webcasts, podcasts and conferences. I began compiling information and requesting to be sent to workshops and training in all things HazMat. I met some awesome people along the way who welcomed me with open arms and took me under their chemical-saturated wings and showed me the way. It has been a wild ride, to say the least.
A year into my journey, I attended a local conference in Houston called Hotzone (if you’ve never attended, you’re seriously missing out). While there, some instructors brought me into their inner circle and began teaching and mentoring me. This really encouraged me to continue on even though I felt greatly inadequate. A dear friend, teacher and mentor, Joe Bartholomew, wanted to introduce me to someone at the conference. He walked me over to a gentleman named Bob Royall, the Assistant Chief of Operations for the Harris County Fire Marshall’s Office and IAFC HazMat Committee Chair to name a couple of his accolades. Joe said, “Hey Chief, this is Josh Fowler from Beaumont, Texas and wants to teach here next year.” WHAT!? I was still learning. What could I possibly have to offer? What could I honestly teach? Even though I played it cool on the outside, I was panicking on the inside. I had nothing to bring to the table. I needed to learn before I could teach. Chief Royall looked straight at me and said in a low, deep tone, “Son, I expect to see your proposal,” to which all I could muster up was, “Yessir.”
The Chief simply told me that he didn’t need another technician. He needed a program manager.
Not Exactly Qualified… Like, At All
What the heck was I going to teach on? I had no experience; no knowledge. Man… what have I gotten myself into? So, I began reaching out to anyone that would listen via social media. Getting on HazMat groups on Facebook, making connections via LinkedIn and reaching out on Twitter and Instagram. All the while studying NFPA and OSHA guidelines. I began listening to podcasts and watching webcasts. I learned the names of those involved and I tracked them down. I reached out to them and you know what happened? They reached back. They answered my questions and directed me towards others. They shared resources and showed me areas I hadn’t even considered. They, like those at the conference, took me in.
I found the room I was supposed to be teaching in. It was the last teaching block of the day in the last room on a dead-end hall on the last day of the conference. If you found my class, it was either because you wanted to be there or because you were lost. I began setting up as about two or three people came in. I told them which class it was and one of them actually stayed. I got everything set up and I went to use the restroom before it started. I spoke with a couple of instructors in the hallway and they gave me some last-minute encouragement. I returned to my room to find it packed with standing room only.
My first workshop was nothing more than my story. The title was Surprise, You’re the New HazMat: Chief, Program Manager, Sucker. I shared with those that attended that day what I had done, who I had met and what resources I had found to help me along the way. Even now, I still receive calls from those that attended to ask me questions. It’s quite humbling.
Even though I had 16 years of service and experience, I felt I still had so much to learn before opening up my mouth.
Back to the Imposter Syndrome Thing
Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. They seem unable to internalize their accomplishments; however successful they are in their field. High achieving, highly successful people often suffer, so imposter syndrome doesn’t equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence. In fact, some researchers have linked it with perfectionism, especially in women and among academics¹. Even though I had 16 years of service and experience, I felt I still had so much to learn before opening up my mouth. But as I have grown these last few years, I have realized that I did have much to share. Not only that, I’m saddened in the fact that I hadn’t ‘piped up’ sooner.
So, What’s the Point?
As the title of this article states, you have more to offer than you think. You will find that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. And if you want to grow it’s going to require not only a substantial level of discomfort, but sacrifice as well. If you enjoy being mediocre, then by all means file this article away to the can or recycle bin. But… you’re reading this. And you’re reading this, because that ain’t you. You’re reading this because you want to learn and because you want to get better. I don’t care if you’re a 30-minute Captain or a 30-year Chief. You have something to offer and more to offer than you think. Get out there. Get uncomfortable. Start sharing what you know. Start teaching. Start writing. Every organization on the planet will outlive us all. The question is, what kind of groundwork are we laying for the next generation of first responders?
¹Gil Corkindale “Overcoming Imposter Syndrome,” 2008, (accessed October 19, 2019).