Spotlight: Jim Lydon, Fire Chief (ret.), Leadership Director, Life Coach

The Spotlight series highlights individuals in first responder life who have felt an impact, made an impact, and shared an impact with others. We need to share our stories to know we’re not alone and we can do this… together!

Caroline: Welcome to this month’s Spotlight. We’re shining the light on Jim Lydon today. Jim is a retired Fire Chief, business owner, consultant, coach, director of leadership development, and a family man with two kids and four grandkids. Being a survivor of job-related cancer after a long career in public safety, Jim advocates for mental wellness and cancer awareness in the fire service. He’s passionate to support others and give back to the profession.

We’re going to talk about the need for organizations to provide support and resources for mental wellness for their responders. It’s a topic that’s been surfacing for a while now, but we’re certainly not out of the water yet.

Jim, thanks for joining the Spotlight today.

Jim: You bet.

Caroline: Now, how long have you been in the fire service altogether?

Jim: I started as a teenager. I was first associated with the fire service in 1979 as a fire explorer. I spent about two years in that capacity. Things were relatively different in the early 1980s. I got a job with the fire department when I was sixteen. I was hired as a fire cadet, fire dispatcher, and worked on shift in evenings during the week and 24 hours on the weekends in the dispatch center.

So, I did that for a number of years before I was hired by the same agency as a firefighter and moved onto the floor. So, I spent thirty-two years working for that agency before I departed to go be a fire chief in another community where I spent about four and a half years. And then, I went to another agency as a fire chief for another three and a half years. So, I was employed in the fire service for just over forty years.

Caroline: That’s a lot of decades in that job. 

Jim: Yes, I saw lots of change.

Caroline: I’m sure you’ve seen lots of change, not just in the job itself in the way things are performed and the protocols themselves which have changed a lot over the years. But I’m sure you’ve seen a significant change in personnel with just culture in general.

Jim: Yes. I started with a different generation of folks that retired out. And then, I probably saw two generations start to come into the fire service following me.

Caroline: I bet. Most don’t make it to twenty years now. There’s a lot of shifts, a lot of changes, a lot of ebb and flow. So, that’s a long time and you’ve certainly seen a lot and experienced a lot. You said you also advocate for mental health awareness. Do you do that with a group or just as yourself?

Jim: Just as myself. I was affected by some traumatic events in the early part of my career. Even as a young teenager in the fire explorer program, I was exposed to things that probably most teenagers wouldn’t be exposed to. As a firefighter in the early to mid 80s, I had some incidents that affected me even into the early 90s.

Although there was a little bit of dabbling into discussion about post traumatic stress and stuff like that – and I know there was an author that started talking about some of that in public safety in the 80s – we weren’t really doing much about it until the 90s. Even then in the 90s, it was limited.

So, following a particular event that I was involved in, we really pushed our program and expanded the agenda in the organization I was with to implement some programs and peer support and that type of thing in the 90s. That was sort of the launching for it. I’ve just taken the opportunity since then to advocate for it.

As the fire chief in a couple of agencies, I had to deal with the loss of some employees due to some traumatic and stress-related issues. That continued to push the agenda of having programs available within those organizations.

And now, any opportunity I have to speak to younger, new firefighters who are coming into the profession, I talk a lot about what I was affected by and the value of having programs and addressing some of those mental wellness issues up front.

Caroline: What do you feel is the reception from how you’re advocating for it now versus how it was responded to – or not really responded to – back in the 80s and 90s?

Jim: Well, I think back in the 80s and 90s, it was still sort of not something we talked about, right? I can remember some of the comments that were made from time to time that made you want to withdraw potentially from bringing forward your issues. Now, we’re a lot more open to having discussions. Those same underlying tones may still exist. We still need to address them and make it more comfortable and inviting for people to be willing to come forward and talk about the issues that are affecting them.

Caroline: Yes, people are more open now to talk about that stuff. Talk about, if you don’t mind, your journey about advocating for cancer awareness.

Jim: In the early part of my career, we immediately took our face masks off the moment the fire was knocked out. We didn’t wear SCBAs to vehicle fires or dumpster fires. We’ve implemented a lot of procedures to provide better protection. When we first started, we didn’t have diesel exhaust extraction systems in the fire stations. That became a concern obviously. Then, we put them in, but we found difficulty with using them or people not using them. We really pushed the agenda of providing these resources to help you protect yourself.

Other things that I’ve been involved in have been looking at the apparatus design. Where does the exhaust pipe come out? A lot of agencies have the exhaust pipe come out where the most commonly used equipment is stored, the medical equipment. So, everyday, multiple times a day, you’re standing in front of that exhaust pipe just to get to that one compartment. Maybe we can redesign our equipment or relocate where we store that equipment. We look at things like that, opportunities to reduce the number of times that you’re exposed to any kind of carcinogen, whether that’s the diesel exhaust or it’s products of combustion at a fire… We need to address both.

It wasn’t something I was too concerned about when I was a twenty-year-old firefighter. I moved on in my career and advocated for that.

Caroline: We’re invincible when we’re young.

Jim: It was later in life when there was some recognition. But, in the agency that I worked for, we lost a member to cancer in the early 80s that prompted some of that discussion. “Why aren’t we wearing SCBAs at some of these types of events?” That eventually led to the policies that said that this is what we’re going to do. So, I just always was an advocate for it.

And, low and behold, thirty-eight years into my forty-year journey, I was diagnosed with my own job-related cancer. That prompted me to continue to do things to bring awareness of cancer in the fire service specifically on that front, besides opportunities to speak to young firefighters and really encourage that concept of reducing risk and reducing exposure.

I will make posts occasionally on social media talking about my story and trying to encourage people to keep up the fight and change the way we do business and look for opportunities to reduce exposure to toxins.

I’m associated with Fire Velo, which is a cycling club that advocates for things like cancer awareness. We do some fundraising. We also recognize the behavior and mental wellness aspect too. With that organization, I was scheduled to participate in their annual event, a cycling ride in California from the Golden Gate Bridge to Los Angeles, approximately five hundred miles.

Unfortunately, COVID ended up canceling that trip. That coincided with that period of time I was actually going through my cancer treatment. There was a big motivation factor to making that ride. So, when the ride got canceled, it was a let-down.

Then, a friend of mine who was going to do that ride with me said he’s going to do it anyway. We ended up connecting and we did it, just the two of us with our wives supporting us. We talked about it, promoted it on social media saying what we were doing and why I was particularly doing it. Also, we did some fundraising. 

And then in 2021, right after I retired, that same organization was doing a fundraising ride to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 and raise funds for a couple of organizations that are dealing with the New York firefighters that are affected post 9/11. Plus we also raised some funds for the San Francisco firefighter organization that does cancer prevention activities and research.

So, that journey was from Los Angeles to New York City. We made that ride in 2021. We went to all the memorial sites and that type of thing and got lots of great support across the country. And we raised quite a bit of money for those organizations through that.

Caroline: That’s great. I’m really glad that you and your friend went on that ride anyway. I’ve heard a lot of people doing things like that when some big event gets canceled – a ride or a run, my husband did a run – and they just do it anyway either locally or the same route.

Now, I know you also said that you are assisting with the delivery of a seven month leadership academy for fire service leaders. Talk about that.

Jim: So, I work for an organization called All American Leadership. We provide leadership development and culture assessment work for organizations both public and private. I started with them shortly after I retired. I had been a client of theirs with the previous organization I was with and, when I retired, they asked if I would come on and work with their staff.

So, I did some presentations for them. This year, at their academy, they asked me to be on board for the whole program to assist with the delivery of the program. We do a fire service based one that’s done virtually. We have participants from four states with about thirty five people in the program. It’s a development program that we do over a seven month period.

The first six months is the content delivery, then it capstones in month seven when the participants give a presentation where they talk about their leadership journey and the legacy they want to have associated with their leadership.

The program starts out where we focus on talking about ourselves. Then, we talk about the skills to build trust and communication in a one-on-one situation. Then, we bring them up to the team concept and leading in an organization.

So, we kind of walk through those four levels of leadership over that period of those six sessions. Like I said, that particular one is what we’re delivering for fire service personnel. We have some other programs that we do for organizations that are private businesses or corporate groups.

Caroline: I love that you’re working with a group that’s training new leaders. We definitely need some strong leadership. Strong leadership leads to strong organizations. One of the things that you mentioned before is the need for organizations to provide better leadership for their first responders, especially for support resources.

You said, “We tend to focus so much of our energy on the technical skills of our professions to be tactically proficient, while minimizing the development of the skills necessary to better serve our members’ needs as humans.”

We are only human, so, let’s shift to that for a moment. Back in the 80s, we couldn’t say the C word; we couldn’t even say “cancer.” It was taboo to even talk about that, much less to talk about the need to change things or talk about our feelings. A lot has changed since then.

Tell me what you think leadership needs to look like now in order to make a better situation for our current responders.

Jim: Going back to my comments about the technical skills and things like that – I don’t mean to discount the importance of those.

Caroline: Of course not, no.

Jim: When we start to look at promotions to company officers and chief officers, we seem to spend a lot of time and energy [on this.] The people that are participating in those processes become really focused on their ability to be an incident commander, those technical skills and what it takes to be an incident commander and manage a good incident and things like that. I don’t discount those.

There’s no community where the fires are still burning. We still manage those incidents and we have lots of policies and procedures on how to manage those incidents. Yes, sometimes things go bad. So, we need to have those technical skills. But I don’t think we spend a lot of time developing people skills, the ability to have difficult conversations with your subordinates in the fire house. Those are the fires that are still burning today in our organizations. Those are the issues that present fire chiefs with challenges.

We read about court cases and different things because of behaviors that aren’t corrected properly in the fire house. I think some of that has to do with us not providing and developing the skills that people need in order to have those interactions and be comfortable in uncomfortable situations where they have to have those difficult conversations with people.

That’s my point with leadership development: being able to give people the skills to understand how to build trust and be in a relationship with other people in the organization in a way that you can have those conversations, correct those behaviors, and mitigate those disastrous events that occur when we don’t give people the people skills to take care of the people they’re supervising or leading.

Caroline: I love that you use the analogy of a fire still burning. And you’re absolutely right, we do need tactical proficiency. There’s all kinds of technology supporting that. We’ve come a long way. We went from just boots, jacket, and loose helmet, to full SCBA, you’ve got your whole gear on, your pack on, you’re on air… It’s a lot different. You mentioned before we’re a lot more aware of carcinogens, keeping the mask on longer – not all of them do, but they’re supposed to.

All of that education and training has come a long, long way and we do need to keep that tactical skill. But, in addition to that, and I think this is what you’re saying and I fully agree, we need to additionally work on those people skills and take care of our responders from the inside out. Yes, we want to keep everyone safe. Nobody’s fireproof.

When those fires aren’t burning anymore, we need to make sure no other fires are burning in the firehouse, inside of our responders, inside of the trauma they dealt with, whether it was on the job or off the job. I think that’s a lot of times what we’re talking about here with First Responder Coaching. We’re talking about those fires that are still burning. 

Jim: You talked about all the changes that we’ve made to prevent or reduce job-related cancer and the transition of equipment. We spent decades improving procedures, equipment, developing policies, improving training, developing standards, and all of those elements… We put a lot of money and resources and time and energy into those elements in order to reduce the number of line-of-duty deaths in the fire service over the decades.

When we talk about mental wellness and specifically suicides and things like that, some people make a comparison between the line-of-duty deaths and the suicides. My concern with that is it’s apples and oranges. We have yet to put the same effort – as in resources, money, time, and energy – into fixing that problem the same way that we reduced the line-of-duty deaths by providing all that enhanced equipment and training.

So, I think until we are really committed to putting more money, time, and energy into the mental wellness side of things, we’re not having the same impact. And so, to make that comparison can be misleading for people, because we just haven’t put forth the same effort yet.

Caroline: It’s unbalanced.

Jim: Yes.

Caroline: What would it look like if we were to put that time and effort and money into mental health like we do the physical job itself?

Jim: It’s the commitment of funding, the leadership, the political officials, all those people acknowledging the problem and stepping up and saying, “Yes, this is definitely an issue and a concern.” And then committing to fixing the problem like we committed to fixing the other issues. That means committing those resources, the money and the budget, to have available on-staff or on-call competent professionals that can assist our members in getting the support early when they need it and having ongoing programs, education, resources for counseling. Whatever that might be so that we’re really putting the money into the program and not just talking about it.

I think that until we make that leap, and some organizations are, whether we’re talking about law enforcement, firefighters, first responders, however you want to put it, but as a profession we need to put the resources out there so these opportunities are available for people to get the help they need.

Caroline: The resources are basically akin to the equipment. You’ve got new equipment, new tools. Well, you need new resources. You mentioned an on-site professional who’s there. Right now, there’s a lot of departments that if they have any awareness or any amount of consciousness to this, they’ll say, “Here’s a phone number. Call them.” I guess that’s better than nothing, but that’s like saying, “Here’s a lockbox. Figure it out.” You need to make it more tangible, more accessible for your responders.

I think it would be fantastic if we could get ourselves to that point. And, you’re right, it’s going to take a lot of advocating to reach officials and leadership and politicians to support that funding and those programs.

Jim: That’s where we need to go. We need to take that next leap and provide funding for programs that will benefit the members and address the issue, right? Again, until we do that, we’re still going to have the problem, but we can minimize it. We haven’t eliminated all line-of-duty deaths. We’re not at zero. Know that there’s still going to be incidents that occur. We may not solve all the problems related to mental wellness, but until we make a more concerted effort, we’re not going to reduce that number.

Caroline: What are some organizations or types of organizations that you see out there that are emerging that are more effective in this regard that you wish were more available for everyone?

Jim: I know there’s a number of them out there that are providing resources. There’s First Responder Wellness here in Southern California. They have a treatment center and they deal with a lot of folks from the first responder world. I’m also familiar with First Responder Support Network. They’re on the west coast in Northern California and they have a retreat center and work with a lot of folks. Some of my associates have been through their program.

There’s some good programs out there. We need to socialize more amongst the profession to make people aware of what’s out there and provide those resources, get the money to support people going to those programs without concern for their jobs and without concern that they will be [judged.]

Caroline: Unfortunately, the stigma’s still there. With FRC, when we have an organization sign on for a certain number of units or coaching sessions, we create a landing page for individuals to visit which the organization advertises within its department. From there, responders can sign up for a session. The organization can see the number of sessions being used but will never see who’s using the coaching sessions. Everything stays totally confidential.

We know that people don’t want to admit what they would possibly think of as weakness. Of course, it’s not weakness; it’s being human. But it still carries that stigma.

Jim: I’ve coached most of my life in my career. As a supervisor, as a union representative, or as a fire chief I was engaged in coaching people regularly not necessarily knowing that I was coaching people. This brings up another concept of the use of the word coaching in the fire service. We talked about this just yesterday in our leadership program.

Some people associate coaching with the initial phases of discipline. We talk about coaching and counseling sessions. Those are associated with the initial step of [correcting behavior.] “Okay, I provided coaching and counseling and it didn’t correct a behavior, so now we move on to the progressive discipline process.”

One of our concerns relative to coaching is to be able to separate that out. When we start talking to our first responders and talking about coaching, we’re talking about coaching to help you get better at something or to help you solve a problem. We’re not talking about coaching from the standpoint of “you’re in trouble.” So, there could even be a stigma around the whole concept of coaching just based on how for years we’ve incorporated that into our language that’s associated with our disciplinary processes.

But back to what I did in the fire service, I coached people. Looking back on it, sometimes I was coaching people on life issues, sometimes it was work issues. I got into that for the purpose of coaching people for development, helping them with their promotional exam process. Fast forwarding to today, through all my leadership and the leadership program, we were offering some coaching. A while before that even came up, I had been coaching people after I retired. I got connected with one of the people from FRC who reached out to me via LinkedIn. We had some dialogue and he introduced me to FRC’s training program.

I thought to myself, well, I’ve been doing this all my life. Maybe I need to participate in an actual training and hone my skills a little bit. So I made the decision late last year to join FRC’s training program and [become] an FRC coach.

Caroline: That’s fantastic. Thank you for doing that and being such a good advocate. You’ve got your hands in a lot of pots. You’ve been through a lot of experiences.

Jim: Yes.

Caroline: It’s great to see someone with so much experience still be involved. You’re not on the job anymore, but you’re still involved and you’re still pushing for change and we need that. The young guys may have some great ideas and try to push some things, sometimes people listen better to one with more experience. Someone such as yourself with your experience and your years as fire chief, you’re going to advocate with a lot more weight than someone with only five or ten years on the job.

Jim: Giving back and helping the profession grow and develop, I always knew when I retired that I wouldn’t just sit still. I still needed to be engaged. My individual purpose is to help others. I became very much engaged in the concept of servant leadership and some formal education associated with that. It’s what I’m wired about. When I thought about retirement, I used to jokingly tell people I’m going to have to do something because you can only ride a bicycle and play so much golf.

At some point, you have to have something that motivates you. I had a colleague ask me,”What’s your purpose? What makes you get out of bed every morning?” Without that, you become stagnant. I really think that’s where I’m at being involved in the leadership program and providing coaching. It’s my opportunity to stay engaged but more to continue with my true purpose of helping other people to grow and develop.

Caroline: Thank you for all that you do and advocate for. Without people leading the charge on these kinds of things, it’s just going to fall on deaf ears. So, we’re really glad that you’re doing what you’re doing, and the organizations that you’re with are doing what they’re doing. It’s hopefully going to make an impact and bring change to first responder life. We need these changes.

Jim: I’m just glad to be able to help people and give back to the profession of the fire service and first responders. I just think I have stuff to still give. This is the second chapter of my life and this is what I’ve chosen to do.

Caroline: Thank you for choosing it. Thanks for being in the Spotlight, Jim. If anyone wants to reach out to Jim, you can find him on LinkedIn. Check out the other links above regarding other work he’s doing. We’ll continue to follow all that’s happening. Keep on sharing these things and getting the word out. Change is possible and needed. Share this out.