And now, an excerpt from the book Barn Boss Leadership by author Brian Ward.
This particular morning was like any other except I happened to be at home instead of work, waiting on the AC Repairman. I awoke about 0630 to go for my morning run as a fire call came in with an address one road down from my residence in the small town where I volunteer. In this volunteer department, I am a firefighter at rank, and I follow orders instead of the typical giving of them in my career status. While I do not shy away from speaking up, I feel it is important to listen and be respectful with my rookie status (which has it’s benefits – nozzle time). This understanding of leadership versus followership is important to understand as this incident unfolds. This is a key aspect discussed in Barn Boss Leadership concerning what makes teams successful.
The neighbor stated to dispatch that he believes he sees smoke inside the residence, but no one is home. I skipped my morning run and went en route to the call approximately half a mile away. As I turned down the road, I did not see any columns of smoke, and for all I knew, this would be a quick wash down or false alarm. As I got closer to the address stated by dispatch, I did not see any indication of fire. All of a sudden, in a bend in the middle of the road, was the mailbox I was looking for. Quickly, I looked to my right and saw a light wisp of black laminar smoke pushing from a small utility room window on Side A. I had arrived first on scene, established command, provided my size up, and conducted my walk around. It was a two story wood frame single family dwelling with smoke showing from the A/D corner on the first floor. As I made my walk around there were no lights on, all doors were locked and no other signs of fire or smoke showing.
As I started back up the hill towards the road, an additional volunteer showed up, and the two career firefighters on E2 and E4 were seconds later. We immediately exchanged information and transferred command as I rolled back to my firefighter status. One of the firefighters and myself grabbed the 200’ 1.75” pre-connect and took off to the front door. I did use my rookie status to take over the nozzle. We forced entry into the residence, controlling the flow path and not performing uncoordinated ventilation. As we forced the front door, the smoke quickly leveled itself one foot off the floor at the door and five feet in there was zero visibility. The smoke was very laminar and did not appear to be volume or heat pushed at the front door.
We continued performing a search along the right-hand wall, which would lead us to the A/D corner, looking for a door or hallway. After feeling around some furniture and about 20’ in, we found a doorway and made entry. There was a small sense of environmental changes but nothing too alarming, however, we were definitely closer. After about another foot or two, I could hear a crackling, but I still could not see anything. I made entry into the bedroom and felt a definite rush of heat but no fire. I made the decision to quickly discharge my 150 GPM nozzle into the ceiling to cool the environment but careful not to upset the thermal layering. After a few seconds, the heat did dissipate, but I still could not see the fire in this less than ideal condition. These are the ones that scare me the most or maybe you just call it being respectful – you hear it, see the smoke, feel the heat, but you cannot find the seat of the fire.
Let me back up to the night before, at Station 2, where we have our weekly training for volunteers. The goal this particular night was a 200’ hose entanglement drill with a disoriented firefighter. I packed out, flipped my hood over my mask, and went inside the training building. There were pallets, tires, 55-gallon barrels and other obstacles with my hose stacked on/over/under and through (no smoke or fire) – their imagination was in overdrive. The obstacle was to orient yourself and feel your way through the hose entanglement drill. The instructor made it a point to remind his students to always sound the floor making sure to always have a solid floor under you.
Just 12 hours later, as I sit inside this two story burning structure, I am listening to the fire crackle in front of me. Still operating in zero visibility, and nozzle in hand, I told my backup firefighters to prepare to advance. I hit the floor every few inches in front of me hoping that my senses would clue in on any discrepancies. My situational awareness (identify, comprehend and predict), I would say, was heightened as I understand the gravity of making the wrong decision and someone else’s life hanging right there with me. I continued sounding the floor. I felt another door to my right. I pushed it open and sounded the floor one more time. I suddenly felt a buckle of the hardwood floor planks and knew something was not right. I sounded it again and encountered the same result. I immediately told the two firefighters behind me to back out. We had encountered a failure of floor integrity, but I was unsure of the extent. While I am the “rookie,” neither of them hesitated or questioned my decision.
After we regrouped and changed our vantage point of attack, the “fire” was determined to be a slow charring fire in the walls from a lightning strike hours before the actual call. Once the smoke cleared, we went back inside to check for extension and other hotspots. Visibility was greatly improved, so I walked back to where I gave the orders to back out to determine what my senses had told me. The fire had burned through the wall into the flooring system; there was a 6’ hole in the floor only two feet away from where we stopped. The phrase, “Faith in God, Trust in Training” comes to mind. Whether it was the training the night before, luck, or the Grace of God – remembering the basics kept us inches away from danger. I personally thanked the instructors from that night’s training and showed them what they did, so they can share this story the next time they do hose entanglement drills or fire attack drills.
If these guys would have never seen or spoke to me before would they have still listened? This is the value of team building and training, and understanding when to follow and when to lead. Remember the basics of your training and execute it to perfection. Anything can happen in this job, so you better be good at it. Mastery should be your minimum standard. Drill not to get it right but until you cannot get it wrong. The difference may only be inches away…..
Be Safe and Train Hard!
Barn Boss Leadership can be reviewed here: https://www.createspace.com/5952190
Stay tuned for Station-Pride’s Product Review of Barn Boss Leadership!
Barn Boss Leadership, August 2016 publication – A unique blend of fire, science, psychology and fire service history provided by an author who has worked in the largest of metropolitan to the smallest of volunteer departments. True leaders develop their power long before they receive a promotion. This text is designed to provide a guide and self-awareness gut check for individuals of all ranks. However, the emphasis of this text is for the informal leader in the organization, who is the catalyst for action. This text is for the individual who considers mastery the minimum standard.
Brian Ward, Author of Fire Engineering – Training Officer’s Toolbox and Managing Editor/Author for the Training Officer’s Desk Reference by Jones and Bartlett. Brian facilitates programs around the country on emergency response, training and leadership topics in the public and private sector. Founder of FireServiceSLT.com.
This is the second part to our Three Part Series Titled: “Entitlement, Running People Off, & the Push for Higher Education.”
If you missed it…Check out the First part: “Entitlement”.
In this 3-part-series, we will be discussing, or more realistically, I will be ranting. You will read this and at the end, you may or may not feel mentally violated.
Running People Off
This subject is intertwined with what we talked about in “Entitlement.” When the type of new employee that I described as being from the “everyone gets a ribbon” generation comes into the department, they need clear direction on what they are to be doing from day one. They don’t learn firehouse etiquette in their fire science classes. They don’t learn how to deal with firehouse personalities either. They are thrown directly into your firehouse and are subject to all the dynamics and personalities of your crew, so don’t get your undershorts in a bunch when they don’t automatically know what to do.
We all walked down our own path known as life. When we grew up, we all learned things differently. Make sure your rookie knows that it is not wrong to ask questions. It is not wrong to not know what the morning routine is and it’s not wrong to be oblivious to the fact that they shouldn’t ask the Chief any questions before he has his morning coffee. It is not the end of humanity to do a task wrong the first time. As the senior member, you need to explain why things are the way they are so that the new guy/gal understands.
But so often, we don’t do that, do we? We turn a blind eye to the fact that the educational facilities in our area only teach these kids just enough to maybe not get killed in a fire. We ridicule them and browbeat them for not “knowing what’s up” or “getting with the program” when they have no idea that they shouldn’t ask the senior guy who’s topped out and hates riding the medic. The haven’t been around to even know what their job is, let alone know which way the toilet paper goes on the roll.
The new boot has a hard run in the beginning and each mistake, no matter how small, is blown up by the rest of the crew to be the equivalent of stabbing a kitten in the face. It’s ridiculous, and it’s our fault. The mob mentality takes over and gains momentum. We make it so hard for them that they often leave. Or, we use the bull shit stories we made up about the minor mistakes they have made to get them removed from the company. We high-five each other about taking care of the “problem” but sit around the table our next shift and bitch like a bunch of grumpy old women when we are short on the rig or have to ride the medic two tours in a row. I guess being senior employees makes us feel like we have the right to bitch but not offer solutions. Bitching without providing a solution is called whining!
We tend to be in the business of not even giving people a chance sometimes and then wonder why we can’t get recruits or why our department’s reputation starts to slide. We can’t get our heads out of each other’s asses to see that it is a situation we created. Hey, but we get to retire someday and get paid by a place that we didn’t even contribute to, right? Super sweet!
I’m not saying that you need to powder their asses as they work to fit into your department. There has to be a clear understanding of the objectives that they need to meet. A standard set of goals for every recruit. There has to be an understanding on the part of the crews that not everyone learns the same way. We are seeing a crop of kids that may have been home-schooled, e-schooled or in some alternative learning environment growing up. That doesn’t mean they are stupid or inept; that just means they learned differently than you or your crew.
Assembly line education was great, wasn’t it? I mean, being made fun of and bullied or called a nerd for being different, that was neat, right? My scars run deep Mick; they run deep. Ahh, the memories….
All I am saying is keep an open mind when training the new recruit. They may need you to work outside of your comfort zone to help them learn. What they don’t need is an environment where no one can learn from a mistake. They don’t need to be pushed out of your department because you or your department leaders are too short sided or ignorant to find a way to help them. They don’t need to be asked, “What don’t you understand?” or “What don’t you know so that we can teach you?” They obviously have no clue what they “don’t know.” So why even bother asking? Are you there to teach them, or are you just there? Sometimes neither is helpful. And it’s not the new firefighter that is the “problem”; it’s YOU!
Next time we will talk about higher education. As the son of an attorney, higher education was the “end-all, be-all” in my house. Needless to say, I didn’t follow the same path as my sister. What’s it like sitting at a desk all the time? I can’t even imagine….
Stay Tuned for “The Push For Higher Education.”
So I just read an article…
To sum it up, five monkeys are put in a cage containing a banana that could only be reached by a ladder. Every time the monkeys tried to climb the ladder, they got sprayed with water. The monkeys got to the point that they beat the shit out of any monkey that tried to climb the ladder to get the banana. They then started switching monkeys that were not sprayed. The monkeys beat the shit out of the new guy trying to climb the ladder. They eventually replaced all of the monkeys. Now none of these monkeys had been sprayed, yet, they continued to kick that monkey’s ass that tried to climb the ladder and get the banana.
“200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress”.
That’s a thing we’ve all heard around the station. But think of it, we do this. As an academy instructor, I remember preaching about pushing fire a few years back because that’s how we were always taught. We now know that water puts out fire; it doesn’t push it. Amazing how something so simple can become a tradition. This is why we need to support our new people to go out, learn more, challenge us to think, and create their own future in the fire service. Yes, we need to mentor the same way we were, but we also need to listen to their questions. We need to stay current on our training. Most important, we need to reach out to our fellow brothers and sisters to learn how they perform the same tasks.
Take pride in where you came from! Support your tradition; don’t rely on it. Anyone can see our fires have changed when legacy construction is compared to modern. We as firefighters also need to change and adapt. We need to stop attacking that monkey climbing the ladder just because, “That’s how we do it.”
Now go out there climb your own ladder and grab that damn banana! (Now waiting on the banana-grabbing jokes)
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Firefighters is becoming a hot topic in the fire service. It’s not a difficult idea to wrap your head around, we all know it’s a constant struggle for some of our brothers and sisters. Managing the raw mortality of the general public is not for the faint of heart. Our experiences with risk, death, trauma, and merely bearing witness to the personal tragedies of others is just another Wednesday at the office. The first responder (Police, Fire, EMS) job experience cannot be matched in procedure, process, or practice in any other profession.
Firefighting began with neighbors helping neighbors, entire communities banding together for collective survival in bucket brigades and it has morphed into a massive complex industrial entity, quilted together in inconsistencies. The idea of neighbors helping neighbors remains the same, but the process has changed dramatically. Instead of entire communities standing up to shoulder the load, a select few are standing up, swearing-in, and accepting the life of experiencing all the tragedies and miracles for the sake of others. “So others may live.”
For the last ten years, there has been extensive research into military combat-related PTSD; it’s the majority of research that currently exists with PTSD. What doesn’t exist is extensive research into the propensity and prevalence of PTSD in Firefighters. In every instance of trying to understand firefighter PTSD the only example that can be referenced is combat and war, however, the comparison is not apples to apples. Firefighter PTSD can not and should not be compared to what soldiers experience in combat.
Combat-related PTSD occurs because of what soldiers experience and the tasks that he/she performs while they are deployed. The symptoms of combat-related PTSD generally surface when the soldier attempts to reintegrate into society. In short, a soldier leaves the safety of home, inserts into a combat zone; experiences and/or does awful things for a defined term of time (deployment); the soldier returns home and tries to carry on as if nothing happened. No other profession can compare or match the reality of taking another person’s life in combat while accepting the feeling of being hunted or targeted for death.
In a differing experience, Firefighters are nearly always and fairly consistently on the verge of experiencing, if not in the middle of mitigating, a traumatic event (whether there own or witnessing others). Firefighters live in society, and there is no reintegration unless you attempt to measure it after every shift. The exposure to traumatic incidents is spread across years and even decades, over one’s career.
For the first responder, the consistent exposure to traumatic events becomes a way of life. It’s that reality that begs the question; are firefighters ever “post” trauma?
Sure, there is a moment when the traumatic incident ends, followed by an inconsistent amount of unmeasurable time until there is another traumatic experience which will have its own “post” block of time. The repeated exposure to traumatic events creates layers of exposure like an onion, one layer on top of another. You may remember one specific traumatic incident for the rest of or life; it may be an awful memory, but it doesn’t always give you PTSD symptoms. It’s not fully known WHY some people get PTSD and others don’t. Again, PTSD isn’t about what’s wrong with you; it’s about what happened to you and how you’re able to process it. Clearly, we’re all different.
To complicate matters, after a while, all the traumatic experiences start to become relative to one another. The worst call you’ve ever experienced will always stick out until it is matched or topped by another call, leaving lesser, moderately traumatic situations to feel not so bad, because you’ve had worse. If you took the average resident of your community and had them bear witness to a traumatic car accident, that event is likely to be more traumatizing to them, because you’ve been exposed to worse or similar incidents.
As you can probably conclude, it’s not entirely simple to break down the prevalence of PTSD in Firefighters. There are several types of firefighters. Career, volunteer, wildland, airport, industrial, federal, shipboard, and more. Each segment of our profession has vastly differing experiences related to trauma. The airport firefighter could work his entire career without experiencing a traumatic event, while the career firefighter in a metropolitan environment could experience multiple traumatic experiences per week for an entire career.
To make things even more complex, volunteer firefighters in rural areas may experience a fair amount of traumatic experiences related to people they know personally, as opposed strangers, which adds another barrier to research. To further complicate the volunteer research challenge, volunteers lack the PTSD protective factors (social support, kitchen table discussions, access to EAP) available to career firefighters. Volunteers who respond to a traumatic event and then return home to their family brings it’s own dynamic that has the potential for marriage and family implications.
If you’ve made it this far, you might be feeling that you’re completely fine, as if nothing could possibly affect you, and you could be right. However, desensitization is the key theme here. Desensitization is the diminished emotional responsiveness to a negative or aversive stimulus after repeated exposure. This has long-term implications which could affect your social relationships outside of the fire department, including your family.
More research is needed in this area so we can begin to understand the bigger picture. With more research, we’re able to create better solutions for firefighters, their families, and the industry. Please take this short survey to help Station Pride gather the data needed to realize a global picture of the greater fire service. The more firefighters that take the survey, the clearer the picture. Please be as honest as possible.