The year is 1974 and a young Coast Guard Officer is back home in his beloved Philadelphia. Having been just honorably discharged after 4 years of service, he is accustomed to doing his duty, feels comfortable in a uniform, and is thinking about how he can continue to serve. This is when young Lloyd Ayers hears a radio commercial calling for Philadelphia Firefighters. Then there is an advertisement on the side of a bus, the pull of public service, some soul searching, and a decision is made. The rest, as they say, is history.
Cadet Lloyd Ayers passed his entrance exam and soon began his training at the Philadelphia Fire Academy. Today, 40 years later, that young cadet is Philadelphia’s Fire Commissioner leading over 2,400 heroic firefighters who help keep our city safe.
1. Leaders Grow
Leadership is a journey. It does not begin when someone accepts a management role; a person does not become a leader when he or she is named an “executive” or given charge over the lives of others. Leadership begins on day one. Usually, at an entry level position (or quite possibly before that point), with experiences, watching—first hand—what works and what doesn’t, and thinking about how to do things differently if ever given the chance. Experiences inform a leader’s values and determine what he or she would like to accomplish in the future. True leadership is continuous growth. By the time a true leader is brought into a top role, the good decisions may seem automatic but they are usually the result of many years of preparation and commitment, doing things the right way, every day, not just when someone is watching.
I see a true leader in departing Commissioner Lloyd Ayers. When Ayers became a firefighter in the 70’s, the department was running from fire to fire. The country suffered through approximately 6,000-7,000 fire-related deaths a year. Philadelphia saw approximately 150-170 deaths caused by fire each year. With such a heavy volume, the fire department’s top objective was to fight fires; there was hardly any time for other initiatives. Ayers worked his way through every rank within the department, learning every day along the way, eventually being appointed Commissioner in December 2004.
2. Leaders Adapt
With Commissioner Ayers at the helm, the fire department looks very different. For example, the department doesn’t just fight fires today, it prevents them. The department has created an expansive community risk reduction effort that educates the community on prevention. Now, firefighters are spending a substantial amount of time installing life-saving fire alarms and offering free home inspections to the neighborhoods they serve. Today’s Philadelphia Fire Department is ingrained in its community; firefighters are neighbors, educators, and heroes.
Today, the department’s community engagement efforts are also driven by technical innovations such as the “Fire Safety App” for mobile devices. Created in partnership with Drexel University students, the app includes information about smoke alarms, home escape planning, hospital locations, and first aid tips. The Fire Department also airs its own TV show, “Freedom from Fire” that teaches residents about fire prevention and safety.
“Commissioner Ayers is a dedicated public servant and has been dedicated to improving public safety in our city. He is a gentle giant in his own right and has approached his job with dignity and respect for all.” Chief of Staff to the Mayor, Everett Gillison
3. Leaders Impact Lives
In 2012, Philadelphia saw 25 fire-related deaths, a substantial reduction from when a young Lloyd Ayers started. In 2013, the city hit its lowest number yet at 24. While Commissioner Ayers certainly isn’t satisfied with 24, (he has stated over and over again that the goal is 0), the lives saved are a credit to his service and all the great firefighters who stand alongside him ready to serve each day. Despite his upcoming retirement, he has begun a recent innovative effort working with Caroline Olson, our new Chief Talent Acquisition Officer, on an initiative that will continue to impact the Fire Department long after he’s gone.
4. Leaders Finish Strong
Commissioner Ayers and Caroline have worked with the Fire Department’s Deputy Commissioner Richard Davison, Captain Sean Mack, and National Urban Fellow Darren Johnson on developing a recruiting strategy that will impact and modernize the department’s hiring. This will allow recruitment to be more aligned with departmental needs and goals. The recruitment effort includes potential partnerships with local universities, among other strategies. Further, the City is leveraging social media to recruit new talent. (Check out @CityofPhilaJOBS on Twitter.)
“Commissioner Ayers has been serving the citizens of this City for 40 years, and has spent his career saving lives and property. He has held every rank in the department and will leave a legacy of professionalism and innovation.” Director of Public Safety, Mike Resnick
5. Leaders Leave a Legacy
Along with leaving a record low fire-death toll, innovative communication strategies, and a booming community engagement effort, Commissioner Ayers is also ensuring that the Fire Department is well prepared with talent for the future. This only seems fitting.
As his leadership journey takes a turn, chances are, another entry-level employee’s journey is just beginning. Today, maybe there’s a young potential firefighter hearing about a job opportunity on Twitter. Even though the department has seen much change, let’s hope that recruit’s personal commitment is the same as Lloyd Ayers’. And based on the precedent that Commissioner Ayers has set, I can’t wait to see what he or she accomplishes.
Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.