Part 1: “Entitlement”
Part 2: “Running People Off”
The US is an industrialized nation. We have modeled everything after the assembly line or mass production. We have also taught people from infancy that you can only achieve if you progress down the assembly line of the educational system. To get high marks and to obtain a degree and promoting the idea that our bodies are just transportation for our brains. The idea that having the highest level of education in the land will be rewarded by the highest level of pay is something that all of us, up until the past decade or so, have been taught. Strive to be the smartest guy/gal in the room, so you will be looked upon as the problem solver.
The same holds true in the fire service. We tell the young men or women that they need to stay in the books if they want to wear the white helmet someday. We tell them that they all should want to wear the white helmet and if they don’t they are not formulating solid “career goals.” We disqualify people from promotional opportunities because they do not have or are not pursuing their “degrees.” I hear it from all areas of the country. Some of it is us, and some of it is our HR department.
The part that we don’t tell them is that the Chiefs that a lot of us grew up under didn’t have degrees. They worked administratively and operationally to build the departments up without the framed piece of paper on the wall. They did their jobs, and they did them well, and they learned what it took to run a department.
Now some of you will say I am unenlightened. You will say that a degree is what is needed to operate a department these days due to the political climates, budgets and personnel issues. I agree with that for the most part. The part that I begin to have a problem with is that the amount of operational or “street” time a person has continued to be less and less important when selections are made for command officers. People are getting promoted that test and interview well but lack the intuition or operational knowledge to command a fire scene to a successful resolution. They get promoted because their file is thick with certificates from classes they have “taken.” I know that every fire goes out eventually so each fire scene will end in time but there are ways to resolve incidents without a great loss of life, property or personnel.
Unfortunately, in some departments, as the individuals move “up the chain” they get further and further away from the operational side of the department. They lose touch with some basic skills of EMS and fire suppression and become knee-jerk commanders; spouting out orders that they think will work but are not based on operational knowledge. Nobody questions their decisions until something goes wrong or the scene goes off the rails.
The point I am trying to make is that you don’t always have to have a degree to be successful in this business. If that is something you want to shoot for, then go for it! I have spoken to many people who have spent a great deal of time and money on degrees that they don’t use. The fire service is full of people like that.
Just know that success is measured in different ways. I have always looked up to people who work with their hands. The people that I have looked up to in this job have been the ones that know every aspect of the equipment and can tell you 100 ways to do a task, and yes, I admire the guy who can force a door 29 ways. They have the knowledge that can’t be learned in a classroom. One of the people I look up to the most in this business can tell you everything you need to know about fire service hand tools. How to use them the way they were intended to be used and all kinds of tricks to use the tools in different ways. I learn something every time we talk about tools. That is knowledge that comes from working with your hands. That knowledge is priceless, and it didn’t cost him anything to learn it.
My father spent 8 years in college to become an attorney. I have always said he’s the dumbest smart person I know. He taught me about economics and government, how to balance checkbooks, how the banking system works and to ask the right questions to get the answers you want; all things that I use to
this day. However, that guy couldn’t show me how to build anything, fix a car or figure out why the breaker kept tripping when my mom and sister tried to run 2 hair dryers, a heater, a radio and a curling iron on the same circuit in a house with 100 amp service. Those things I had to learn from other people over the years. I love my dad, but he’s got the nerd gene that he passed onto me. I didn’t get the full nerd gene however, so I wanted to know how to work with my hands. I sought out people to teach me, and I’m glad I did. I still have no idea how to fix my car, though. I have people for that.
Wearing the white helmet is definitely a goal to shoot for. It can be challenging and rewarding at the same time. It can also shorten your life expectancy due to the stress involved. Your career success should not be measured by a white helmet at the end, it should be measured in how well you did your job; how well you passed on what you know and by how well you used the time you had in this amazing line of work to serve your fellow man.
Stay safe out there!
Put your faith in the knuckle dragging, window breaking, hose pulling members of your crew but don’t discount the guy who can figure friction loss in his head!
Being a strong leader doesn’t mean you must be in charge. In fact, leadership is not absolute control. As I learned, leading up the chain of command is equally as important as leading down the chain (Willink and Babin, 2015). The best leaders may be the guys making the push off the back step and it is the job of the officer to use their people to ultimately ready the company for its “career fire.” Two concepts are at the center of being an effective leader: Defining expectations and planning. In this piece, we will talk about defining expectations.
There is a lot of rhetoric in the fire service today, some of which I am guilty of playing into. We must be realistic in defining our expectations because lofty or utopic goals are merely unicorns- unachievable and not real. We have to set a standard for ourselves, first and foremost. In a previous post about the airbrake drill, I detailed how just 25-30 minutes a day has brought our crew to the next level. We can communicate, anticipate needs and actions, and we’ve built trust. Training shouldn’t feel like a punishment, and I feel much of today’s training throws unrealistic scenarios and expectations on a crew, which immediately demotivates even the most highly motivated firefighters. Commit yourself to doing something for thirty minutes a day. Many would be surprised how many times you can raise a ladder in a thirty-minute period, or how many times you can stretch knee bundles. Like a diet or exercise plan, once you accept the commitment and discipline yourself to devote the necessary time, it becomes second nature, and you can move towards affecting the people around you positively. The cliché term is leading by example. People will follow suit.
War story time: While detailed at another station, I was using some spare hose to stretch knee bundles. About 15 minutes in, the officer walks out in the bay and asks what I’m doing. I explained that I was trying out some stuff I had learned in a recent class and was just getting some reps in. I guess he was interested because he stuck around and watched. Eventually, a third guy came out, and the officer said, “Hey watch this, do that V thing again you just did.” Later on, the fourth came out, and long story short, within twenty minutes of him being out there watching, he was now running lines, as we began to flow water. Impromptu drill–done. So what’s special about this? My discipline in “doing something every day” led to a drill that would have otherwise never happened. So I beg the question, who was the leader? Arguably, we each were because we committed the time to learn something new. Taking time to debunk some stretches and flow some water allowed each of us to get better. No one was forced to be out there, yet we all were and an hour flew by. An hour that no one can take away from us.
Getting back on track, how can your people do the right thing if they don’t know what is expected of them? How can you get upset with them, if you’ve never laid out what ideas, goals, and objectives they should be fulfilling? Part of doing the right thing in our trade is fulfilling the expectations placed upon you. As an officer, or even as a firefighter, you’re not wrong to lay forward your expectations, but you must pay close attention to your approach.
1. “Hey, we need to train every day because we suck as a company/department”
2. “Hey guys, training is really important to me, and I would appreciate if, for thirty minutes or so, while I’m out in the bay, that you join me. How awesome is it going to be when we show up second or third due and put someone else’s fire out?”
The differences between statement one and statement two are that you’re treating people with respect and you’re not downgrading anyone or the company. As the old adage goes, “You get more bees with honey!”
There will always be nay-sayers. There will also be that guy, that crew, or that shift that wants to make fun of you for practicing your trade. That’s fine. In the words of my friend Captain Jonah Smith (2016), “I may not be getting better, but what the hell are you doing?”
When going to your crew with a set of expectations, you should be well prepared to explain why you have these expectations whether it’s asked or not. What may not seem like a big deal to a member or two may become a big deal to them when you give them the reason behind the decision; it allows the member to own their role behind the reason (Willink and Babin, 2015). Remember, knowledge base is different for every member and some may not be aware of why a particular detail is important.
When crafting our expectations, we should have one clear objective, and that is to prevent catastrophic failures (Smith, 2016). If we can remain in control of our actions, accept our scope of operations, and work within that scope, we will be successful. If you’re assigned to an engine and you spend more time conducting RIT drills than you do stretching and operating the initial hose line, you just may find yourself in a position where that bailout is necessary. That is not to say RIT and survival are not important, but as an engine, you have one job (House, 2016) and you need to be the best at it.
Define expectations for yourself and your crew and hold yourself accountable. We each have the ability to effect change within our circle of influence; be positive, be a motivator, be a mentor, and watch the wheels start to turn.
– Zach Schleiffer
References: House, Gary. (2016). Smith, J. (2016). FDIC 2016. Willink, J., Babin, L. (2015). Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win. New York, New York; Penguin.
By G. Rice
Those who I work for expect daily that I train, develop, mentor and lead our firefighters. They are a tough bunch to work for. They have some of the highest expectations and constantly watch every move I make. I feel supported in my position and receive the necessary feedback to change my approach or position on any given topic.
Many would think I am speaking about my Assistant Chief of Operations or even possibly my Fire Chief, but I am speaking about the men of my Battalion. It’s important to understand this distinction because I believe we BC’s often lose sight of this. We exist for our men.
I’ve been working for just over a year as a Battalion Chief. My wife recently commented that my white shirts are looking dingy. I already knew this fact. It’s extremely difficult to train with my crews stretching hose, throwing ladders and participating in search drills while wearing these. I’ve smoked many a white shirt and recently spoke with my boss to ask about alternatives. He told me to keep smoking them and that they would buy me new ones this year. That is very reassuring. Not that they will buy new shirts, but affirming that training, sweating alongside my men is where he wants me.
I’m not naive to think that everyone reading this has a similar work environment. Many do not have support both above and below to be successful. So how do we create an environment where these types of attitudes will flourish?
It starts with us, BC’s. I’ve got to ask, when was the last time you PT’d with your men? When was the last time you flowed a line or threw a 24′ ladder? How about performed a search or participated in a Job Task Simulation. How often do you provide feedback, direction, or kudos to those you work for?
I’m calling out BC’s everywhere to ask for you to lead by example. Do you mask up daily and check over your air pack? Do you even have an air pack in the car? How about we start getting out of the car to sweat alongside our men? You know how I know they need a water break? Because I need one. It’s pretty simple. Do we expect our folks to be in gear but find us walking around an accident scene in sunglasses and a vest? Lead by example. It’s really very simple.
It boils down to accountability. We expect it from our company officers but are we being accountable to them? Do we put our officers in a bad way having to field questions about the BC who isn’t geared up? Do as I say, not as I do?
I’ll be attending Nozzle Forward training this November in Houston. This will be my third time through Aaron and his cadre. These guys are smart. Aaron gets it. He often speaks about a movement bubbling up from the bottom. It’s my job to assist my guys who are doing the same within our department. How many “Aaron’s” are in my department? Am I helping each member reach their full potential?
I know I have much to learn. In fact, I know this with every bone in my body. If I do my job correctly, many of my people won’t be working for me as we grow. They’ll be Engineers, Captains and possibly colleagues alongside me. I hope I can keep up with these guys. I hope I can remain relevant in our profession.
So put down your TPS reports and get out with the men. The reports and paperwork will be there when you’re done. Support their careers, mentor and lead.
The Colony Fire Dept
The Colony, Texas
Battalion Chief Garrett Rice