It’s 0905hrs on a Sunday morning.
The career firefighter is sleeping soundly in his favorite recliner, enjoying the freedom to nap indiscriminately on a weekend, but also ready to get to work when the tones drop. He is “living the dream.” You know, that dream, the one you always hear about: Insurance, benefits and steady pay to do something you would probably do for free.
The volunteer firefighter is sleeping equally soundly, enjoying the freedom to stay in bed on a weekend, children permitting. Just like our career firefighter, he is ready to go to work when the tones drop. He is exhausted after working overtime Monday through Friday, but he knows when he wakes up he will get to spend irreplaceable time with his family in the comfort of his own home.
What’s the difference?
There are differences, I can assure you of that. These differences, however, are not as glaring as the Facebook Fire Department would have you believe, and the positives and negatives on both sides mostly cancel each other out. In all of the infighting, backbiting and criticisms that often arise between career personnel and volunteers, we constantly forget about another class of firefighter. These men and women make up the oft-ignored third party of the fire service.
Our red-headed stepchildren; The part-time firefighter.
I have been a volunteer, a part-timer and a career firefighter, I am familiar with the struggles of all sides. I can tell you, without hesitation, that the hardest role to fill is that of the part-time firefighter. You can mistakenly be viewed as not as invested as the career guys, not as dedicated as the volunteers. Scab or hired gun are equally unsavory perceptions of your role.
Would you like to know what the part-time firefighter is doing while both the career and volunteer firefighters sleep? Probably commuting to any one of his or her three-plus jobs. Most of them work varying combinations of full-time and part-time positions, both Fire/EMS and otherwise, to make ends meet. How long has it been since their last day off? Who knows. Somewhere between a dog’s age and a really-freaking-long-time. Home? Nah. The part-time firefighter might as well just live in his car, for all the time he gets to spend at his mailing address.
But why be a part-time firefighter at all if it sucks so bad?
- Some don’t have a choice. Maybe they don’t have any seriously marketable skills outside of public service. I certainly fit that bill, myself.
- It can be hard getting a career position on a fire department, any number of life choices or events can extinguish your dream.
- Maybe life just got in the way. Sometimes the reality of your situation doesn’t necessarily mesh with your career aspirations. Timing is everything.
- Many are younger individuals, just getting their start. Not everybody walks onto a full-time job after class ends. The experience they are gaining makes them much more desirable volunteer and career employees.
- Lastly, some simply have no interest in pursuing a Fire/EMS career. They probably already have gainful employment in another field and just want to enjoy a living out a childhood dream (while being paid for their time, of course).
Arguments are frequently made that nobody forced them to be part-time firefighters, and that they can give up whenever they want and get a better job. Whatever their reasons, the public service community as a whole needs them more than they need us. Most of these guys and gals can certainly make more money elsewhere, but they chose a life of service instead. For now, at least.
Dragging themselves from department to department, sleep deprived and half-dead, but still ready to go; where I’m from, these are the people that keep both career and volunteer departments afloat.
Volunteer engine response constantly coming up light? It’s understandable. With increasingly demanding schedules, not many people have time to volunteer. Part-timers are here to save the day.
Department making the transition from all-volunteer to combination? Those part-timers are super handy when you need to fill out a schedule.
Need shift coverage for that big fishing trip? PT’s got your back.
If they seem grouchy, it’s probably because they haven’t seen their families for days on end. If they seem unhealthy, it’s likely because they don’t have the luxury of good insurance, or can’t afford to take sick days. Their schedules lead many of them to down energy drinks by the case. If they seem disinterested, I would venture to say that it’s because they work at three or four departments, each with their own sets of training, rules, tempo and drama. Burnout is real.
And finally, if they seem tired, it’s because THEY ARE.
Be thankful that they are here, and be nice to your part-timers.
As firefighters, we are asked to provide many types of services. Firefighting, EMS, hazardous materials, rescue, and other tasks that are usually menial. We respond when someone needs help standing after a fall, getting cats out of trees, and removing storm debris for hours on end. We teach CPR to local organizations, fire safety to children, and assist elderly residents with installing smoke detectors and vitals checks. We commonly refer to this as “service” when in reality these are “services.”
Service is not the duties we perform on a daily basis. Service is the art of putting others before yourself. Service is not a cheap buzzword to be used in mission statements or administrative meetings. Service is at the heart of our obligations. It refers to our heritage and tradition. It encompasses the meaning behind our craft as a whole. We are the “fire service.” Service is defined as, “an act of help or assistance.” This is what we do. This is how we make our mark in the future.
We serve three distinct groups of people. First, the obvious, our community. To serve the community we protect, we must continually strive to improve. If we fail here, we provide a disservice to our department and the name of all those who gave their lives in service. If we take our position for granted, we fail to help those in need. Our lack of preparation leads to a failure to provide assistance to those in distress.
The second group of people we serve are our fellow firefighters. My biggest fear is allowing one of my men/women to perish, knowing I could have done more to prepare them. When we fail to ensure the safety of our crews, our citizens, and ourselves, we perform a disservice. This disservice has a butterfly effect on the daily life of everyone we come in contact with.
The next group we serve are our families. We serve our families by making sure we are using effective, functional knowledge to ensure our safety. When a firefighter dies in the line of duty, they feel no more pain. They are burdened no more. But the lives and actions of their family, friends, department, and community are changed forever. They bear the burden of the loss, they feel the hurt, and they reap what you have sown. All too often we act as if everyone owes us something. Before you react, remember that you signed the dotted line. We asked for this job. No judge sentenced us to time in the fire service. We chose this line of work for a reason, and if you have any sense at all, it’s not the benefits. We are the ones who owe something. We owe our families more than just making another 24. We owe our brothers more than watching how to save his life on YouTube. We owe our community more than learning search procedures from an IFSTA manual. We owe these people. We owe our children the right to have a father growing up, by embracing the facts……We can be called to meet our maker at any time. We must exceed the status quo. There are too many amongst us that are not prepared to face adversity. I cannot and will not allow myself to become complacent in my “service.” I will serve others with a tenacity that scares the mediocre. I will not allow the opinions of others to affect my service to my brethren, community, and most of all, family.
It’s an honor to serve. It’s an honor to respond in a time of need. Don’t let disservice be how you are remembered for your service.
Bremen Fire Rescue
In apartment complexes and commercial strip malls across the country, we have issues with line placement through narrow or obstructed paths. These can be caused by parked cars, short setbacks, parking barriers, planters, shrubs, etc. With this in mind, one option available is to pass these obstacles before the deployment of the hose. This is what I like to call “The Delayed Triple Split.” This maneuver allows for the entire hose bundle (on a triple layer) to be deployed after passing through any obstructions or obstacles on the pathway to the building. A few considerations go into this deployment process; they are as follows:
– Placement for the aerial at buildings. The best practice is to have the first arriving aerial’s turntable at the center of the building to access the entire length of the building.
– Placement for the next engine company to bring water or supply a “booster back-up.”
– The width of the average car is approximately six to seven and a half (6′ – 7.5′) feet.
– The width of the average parking space is seven and a half to nine (7.5′ – 9′) feet.
– When spotting the hose cross-lays, use an object in the same area on the truck to act as a reference point, i.e. Piston Intake Valve, wheel well, strobe light, etc.
– The objective could be met with only two firefighters involved.
– Find the average length of bedded hose. The average car is about fourteen to eighteen (14′ – 18′) feet long. You need to find how many folds in the cross-lay are needed to reach the sidewalk, which is approximately twenty (20′) feet from the apparatus.
– The Nozzle Firefighter and Driver/Backup Firefighter go in opposite directions (Triple Split) with the loop and nozzle. This allows for short setback deployments.
– When choosing which way to separate the triple layer on the walkway, consider the need for the loop to advance with the building, not against.
– When Backup/Driver is pulling the loop section of the Triple Layer to the opposite side of the fire building, keep pulling it until the fifty (50’) foot coupling is at the entry to the breezeway/recessed area. This will allow the Nozzleman to walk in a straight path to the entry point and keep all remaining 100’ of hose in usable position in the yard.
– On the return trip to the pump panel or relocating to the front door for Doorman position, the last parts of the hose is placed onto the sidewalk/walk space to allow for clearance once the hose gets charged.
– The 50’ coupling is brought to the front door, with the accordion style layout in the open area between the stairs and building.
– If the 2nd-floor apartment is the apartment, take the nozzle and 50’ coupling to the top of the landing. This will further prove the need for the Backup/Driver to pull the looped section far enough to align the 50’ coupling with the base of the stairs.
With these steps, the training evolution was completed in approximately 1 minute from the time the parking brake was pulled. This is an easy way to allow for the needless pulling of the Triple Layer in a straight line, causing multiple steps to place in proper position.
The key to this process, as with any new training elements, is getting out and practicing. Finding those landmarks on the truck, the direction of the loop placement, and placement of the final layout in the yard or on the landing are the fundamentals to making this stretch successful. Unfortunately, many things in these types of properties will reach up and grab anything on the hose layout to hinder the progress. Couplings get caught on the edge of parking blocks, hoses get pulled under tires, etc. By moving the stretch to the fire building side of the obstructions, the layout will transition smoother with fewer locations for Murphy’s Law to apply.
– Joel Richardson
Our daily lives are completely reliant on decisions. Before we awaken, we have made a decision. Are we rising early to prepare for the day, or did we decide to sleep late and run behind? We decide to come to work on time or early. We decide to prepare ourselves physically. We decide to display pride in our craft. We decide to meticulously inspect our equipment, or we decide to do the exact opposite.
Did we decide to be lazy? Does drinking coffee and checking our Facebook take precedence over preparing to save a life? Does reading the latest article on celebrity gossip trump the duty you have to your brothers, to ensure you are not going to endanger them? Do we decide to spend more time armchair quarterbacking the decisions of others than making the right decision to drill our personnel to the point in which they cannot fail?
These decisions leave us at a crossroads on a daily basis take the easy path….or the right path. A friend of mine uses the saying, “The beaten path is for beaten people.” This is the heart of what’s wrong with the fire service as a whole. We’d rather concede and give people an excuse than hold them to a higher standard. That’s a decision in itself. Unfortunately for some, a difficult one to make. It should be automatic for us.
Every morning we should make the decision to go upstream, against the current. We must decide every morning not just to survive, but to thrive in a world where most would fear to go. Our job is to protect lives on both sides of the cross. If we choose the beaten path, we make a conscious decision to take the easy way out, to run the risk of having to live with ourselves knowing we allowed someone to be unprepared for the dangerous line of work we have. At no point, can we allow ourselves to let laziness be the order of the day.
Instead, we must DECIDE to awaken with a purpose. DECIDE to prepare for the worst possible scenario, physically, mentally, technically and spiritually. We must decide to make basic skills an autonomous response to stress. We must ensure we can make sound tactical decisions. This comes from deciding to prepare accordingly, deciding to prepare for your preparation of the unknown. As for me, I have decided that moderation is for cowards. I have decided that stronger people are harder to kill. I have decided that I will not waiver from my standards and expectations. I have decided that I will train with the intensity necessary to perform at a level higher than others. I have decided that I want to be the guy with the hard job, the crappy gear, the guy who can do more damage with a Halligan than most can with hydraulic tools. I want to be the guy everyone looks up to when the shit hits the fan. That’s my decision.
So, gentlemen, the day is yours……what did you decide?
You’re on scene of a large, type 3 structure, moderately involved in fire. You have no water supply established, and only 5 volunteers have arrived at the call. Clearly, you need back-up. The incident commander makes a call for mutual aid, but the call doesn’t go out to the closest fire department. Instead, the mutual aid is requested from a fire department much farther away with a much longer response time.
This selective mutual aid scenario plays out way more often than it should all across the fire service. Somehow, the practice is justified internally within the concerned department requesting the mutual aid, but is it really justifiable? The hard answer is NO, of course. From the outside looking in, this practice is incredibly dangerous. From the inside looking out, things probably appear more complex.
Let’s take a look at why this happens, where the ethics reside, and what we can do to minimize the TRUE victims of Turf Wars, the residents, and taxpayers of your community.
To dig into the meat of this situation, we have to look at the moments that lead incident commanders to make such a, seemingly, irresponsible decision. Typically, there is some type of tension that has festered between two departments. Even more likely, it’s mutual tension that has been inadequately addressed and communicated between parties. It’s likely that the majority of the moments that cause turf wars are situational misunderstandings or a member from either department acted inappropriately at one point causing a rift.
One specific scenario I’m familiar with involved one fire department with an explorer (junior) program and another neighboring department without an explorer program. The Fire Chief of the department without juniors believed that children didn’t belong on their fire scenes. Instead of having a conversation Fire Chief to Fire Chief a cold shoulder was bred and a Turf War was born. Mutual aid was never requested for years even though they shared a tight border in a business district. After several years, the two Chief’s finally had a conversation over a simple cup of coffee and a muffin. The two chiefs were able to iron out the situation by finding a compromise. No explorers allowed on mutual aid runs to this one district. The departments have been good with each other ever since.
A very simple fix to a long-running Turf War and all it took was a cup of coffee, a muffin, and conversation.
It’s important to recognize that working together and supporting each other will always be more beneficial than cold-shouldering your neighbors. In MOST circumstances simple communication will resolve the majority of misunderstandings. But you have to arrange the opportunities for communication to occur. If you’re a Chief Officer or Captain of a volunteer fire department and you aren’t friends or at least on friendly terms with your neighboring fire department and their members, you’re doing something wrong, and a change of behavior is needed.
Set up a monthly or quarterly coffee chats, or meet-ups over breakfast with neighboring Chiefs and officers. Strangers are more likely to ignore each other than friends. On scene, people are more apt to understand each other when they believe that friendships are at stake.
Take every opportunity you can to get-to-know your neighbors. Most departments are reaching out farther and more often for simple house fires they should be able to handle themselves. Making friends will always be more beneficial than making enemies. Bottom-line, Talk it out. Find some common ground. Chances are, you’ll end up finding you had more in common than you originally thought. In a perfect world, you should be training together, at least, quarterly.
I Wanna be in charge!
As a firefighter seeking a way to promote to the supervisory level in a fire service organization you have to realize that it’s not about what you do; it’s about what you don’t do. It’s about the little things daily that are not attended to; The little things that in reality don’t amount to much and may seem trivial, but collectively add up to define who we (and you) are as an organization.
The problem with this is that many firefighters never understand this concept until they are in a position of management and see if for themselves. Typically, 12-18 months after appointment as a manager, company officers find themselves sitting in their office completely overwhelmed. They simply cannot understand why their company is not performing well. They sit in dismay behind a wrecked desk of piled up projects that seem insurmountable. They contemplate and question the integrity and commitment of their own team while the rest of the company strolls along with no stress at all and oblivious to any problems. Deadlines are missed, tensions rise, and senior staff cannot understand how or why we struggle to accomplish the simplest of tasks to maintain our core values. And then the unbelievable happens, service levels are impacted for the worse and nobody can explain what happened.
Every officer walks into the position with the exact same dreams and goals. They want a cohesive group of firefighters that gets along very well. They want big fires that magically go out at the mere appearance of the company. They want to have fun. They want their co-workers to name their children after each other. Unfortunately, all of this is a dream, and not how it typically works. Time and time again I have witnessed this disaster unfold. No matter what the company makeup is, there is always trouble ahead for company officers. I challenge anyone to find me one company officer that says it was a cakewalk. Yes, dreams can be realized, but only after the initial trauma of becoming an officer heals and they recommit to their guiding principles that got them there in the first place. There are no officers that were bad or even average firefighters. Every officer I know performed at an EXCEPTIONAL LEVEL as a firefighter.
For years I have struggled to convey this message in a meaningful manner that would be easily interpreted by senior members of the organization looking for a path to management and eventually leadership. Over my career as a company officer and chief officer, I have sat with many firefighters seeking my advice and feedback on “what they need to do to become an officer.” Aside from the normal education and certification requirements, my answer has been consistent with every conversation. Start today by demonstrating some simple leadership. Let your principles and traits shine through. There is no magical bullet. There is no inside information, it’s that simple.
It’s Who You Are
The fact is, your interview for the position of manager started the day you walked through the door as a rookie firefighter. Becoming an officer is a really big deal, and it should be. But, becoming a firefighter is a bigger deal as the daily decisions you make will affect you for the rest of your career. You will make mistakes. And, you will have “off” days as a firefighter. But, how you respond to the occasional mishaps and feedback throughout your career will define how you will be as an officer.
How you ‘consistently’ attend to your job as a firefighter or driver will define who you are and is the best indicator of your potential as an officer. So, my first piece of advice is, “Start today, and be the best at the job you’re being paid for.” After many years of doing this job, I think I have developed an ability to spot an officer after their first 6 months. Trust me, it’s that easy. It’s a characteristic that is genuine and cannot be faked. That doesn’t mean people cannot change. But, some people get it from the first day.
Start today by showing you’re humble, that you’re human and
willing dying to learn. Start today by showing a constant and pervasive commitment to the fire rescue profession. Start today by being positive about everything. This is not a job you get by filling out an application. It’s one of few jobs that you actually “take an oath” to commit to. Start today by asking “why yes” instead of jumping on the “why not” freight train to a disaster.
There are no conspiracies or strategies to unlock to becoming an officer. Being an officer is just like being a firefighter. It’s not what you are, “it’s who you are.” It’s a personality, not a job. If you think becoming an officer is about taking a test, passing a set of exams, and charming the heck out of an interview panel you’re very “VERY” wrong. It just doesn’t work like that. It cannot work like that, there is too much at stake. This is why being an officer starts today, not after receiving a set of bugles. No matter how well you do on an exam, your traits and habits that you have demonstrated over your career will be revealed in the “process.” And, you cannot trick the process.
Becoming an Officer
So how do you start? It’s not about what you do day-in and day-out. Unfortunately, it’s more about what you don’t do. You, your company, your station, and even your department will be defined by what YOU DON’T DO. Anybody can extinguish a fire. Anybody can deliver EMS. Anybody can get through a shift with nothing broken and nobody hurt. If you don’t put out the fire, or keep your apparatus in top shape, then you will be defined by those missteps. Departments that struggle have people sitting on their butts whining about the daily whatever. They have firefighters with no initiative that blame the “system” on their attitude. Who are those departments? Those are the ones that appear on the daily TV news with their aerials in the air, or a dramatic situation that has nothing to do with providing this valiant service to the public.
So, here’s my 2nd piece of advice. Don’t look for praise when you do something that is expected. Taking out the trash is not going to get you a set of bars. You should seek praise when you do something unexpected (for you) that benefits the organization. It’s more about the simple things you do when you’re not looking for praise or recognition. I promise people (especially the senior leadership) will notice things are being tended to.
If you’re sitting around the station waiting to be invited to do something, then you’ve missed the leadership train. If you’re waiting for directions from your officer to do “anything outside of the normal,” you’re screwing up your officer interview. If your officer is drowning at his/her desk as you sit and “study something” on the computer, then you’re missing a huge opportunity. If you pass up an opportunity to work some overtime or attend training, you’re missing another opportunity, and it’s noticed. If you’re not the one that is leading the way on the simplest of daily tasks or new ideas, then you don’t stand a chance to promote in any organization.
So what am I talking about? Take out the trash without being told. Clean anything if it’s dirty. Double, and even triple check your tools and equipment. Train on something. And by train, I mean get your hands dirty. Pull hose, climb ladders, dress up without asking for permission from your officer. Become an expert “on your own time.” If something is in disarray, then be accountable and take the initiative to fix it. Establish very high expectations in regards to your station and apparatus. Ask the tough questions to yourself. Don’t depend on others and get over the barriers that keep you from accomplishing something. Do not wait on others (officers) to approve of your routine actions around the station. Answer emails, take on projects, complete assignments and be dependable. Trust me, people notice when it’s not done. Tasks not performed, training not completed are very noticeable. Not to mention hose loaded improperly.
And finally, above all. Be accountable to maintain the history of the organization. If we clean kitchens on Monday’s, then you be the one to ensure it’s done. No one cares why or why not we do something. If history dictates the routine task, then honor it. If the trucks are to be clean at all times, then be the one to grab the hose and bucket first. If for no other reason than honoring the traditions of our past members that built these fire departments. Remember, if you don’t do it people (especially those responsible for promoting you) will notice.
I frequently sit in dismay wondering why a firefighter in any capacity would accept anything sub-par. I think the answer is complicated and the reasons vary. But in general, I believe many just take it for granted and don’t evaluate the value and the potential of something simply defining who they are, or how they will be as an officer.
It’s your fire department, and your interview for the next step started a long time ago. Don’t take anything for granted. I have witnessed the smallest miscalculations remove a person from the process long before they ever even applied to be an officer. So please, stop waiting for an opportunity to come walking in and create your own opportunities through your daily “simple” actions. If you’re waiting for an officer to “create an opportunity” for you then clearly you’re not ready to lead. Opportunities are everywhere, so don’t underestimate anything, get up and DO IT.
– Brian Ritter
– Battalion Chief – City of Wylie, Texas
As firefighters, we have all had associates that we have looked up to. These are the type of individuals about whom you say, “I want to be like him/her when I get older, get promoted, or advance my career.” We look up to those individuals that have taken the time to work with us, show us the ropes, responsibilities, and prepare us for our job and our future. There are no better teachers in the fire service than the seasoned veterans who take time out of their days to educate and train us on the way the job was, is, and should be in the future. So this coming year, instead of just sitting in the dayroom complaining of all the things I would fix if I were in charge, I am making 15 New Year’s resolutions for my fire department. These are things that I can spearhead to address our issues while imparting camaraderie, fostering a team concept, and promoting an actual desire to be a part of a world-class fire department.
#1. – Squashing the “us against them” mentality:
This is the management against firefighter mentality that exists in virtually every fire department. How do we resolve this? We stop letting anger fester. The complaining while sitting in the day room, during dinner, or at roll call is counterproductive. As the adage states, “Misery loves company,” we are only defeating ourselves. We need to ensure we don’t talk bad about ourselves outside the department. Stop airing our dirty laundry. The community will judge you by your actions, the words you speak, and your perceived appearance. Instead, be proud to be here. You are now a member of the best fire department in the world; yours. This organization is built on the shoulders of the people before you. Leave the legacy that you would want to return to. Have a sense of ownership. While you are here, this is your family, your firehouse, your job, and a stepping stone to your future. I am going to represent my department in a positive light. I want to leave a good impression.
#2. – Creating a conduit to admitting wrong-doings:
Whether it is up or down the chain of command, whether it is a captain or a chief, this is a big issue; never admitting you’re wrong. So as a leader, don’t fall into that trap. Admit your mistakes, take ownership, and move on. Be a leader. A leader is a person who has integrity, vision, honesty, trustworthy, has a drive, and a commitment to achieve that vision. They have the skills to make it happen. As a leader, first and foremost, lead by example. Don’t expect your crews to do things you wouldn’t do. Instill trust in your crewmembers. Your crew will realize that you have their best interest at heart and they will be more likely to follow you into hazardous situations once you have gained their trust. This also applies to vehicle checks, station cleaning, morning stretching and planning the day. Be present and involved. You must not be afraid to make a decision. Whether it is the right one or the wrong one, you must be able to decide and justify it, if questioned. A decisive officer instills trust and leadership with the crews. I am going to do a better job of making informed decisions. When I am wrong, I will admit it, correct it, and grow from it.
#3. – Redesigning indecisiveness:
Taking too long to make decisions is considered a huge barrier to effective leadership. Just remember, as a leader, people generally would rather you make a bad decision than no decision. The low hanging fruit is easy to harvest. The regular business day decisions set the tone for the ones you make during emergency situations. Even if you don’t make the right decision, you can make the decision right. Plenty of talented people, even the chief, go to exhaustive lengths not to appear dumb. Let it go. We have the right to change our minds; you are not admitting defeat. You are simply reassessing the situation and processing new information. Similar to a hazmat call where the offensive tactics aren’t mitigating the situation. We retreat, call an audible and deploy defensive operations. I am not dumb. I don’t know everything. I am learning. (See? It wasn’t hard to admit.)
#4. Creating a vision and purpose:
A lack of vision and purpose make effective leadership impossible. Make a daily schedule. We don’t have to adhere to it by the minute, but it gives guidelines for a typical day in the firehouse. Just to figure out a general schedule for each shift. It could be a list of times for training, cleaning, others tasks, down-time, meals, breaks, free-time. This visual tool will bolster the dissemination of information to everyone. They do this in grade school to keep the students on task and promote punctuality. In a broader sense, we need to define our personal goals. To accomplish this, we can start by writing a list of goals you want to complete. It could be of any type; personal, work-related, relationship, educational, or financial. Make it broad or specific. Share it with your supervisor. The department defines expectations of you as an employee; provide them with your expectations. Leadership won’t know what you want if we don’t tell them. It also helps write a performance review. We could define our purpose and share our vision with the entire department.
#5. Constructing a foundation of discipline:
Trying to be a buddy instead of a boss makes it difficult to be a formal leader. A huge morale killer in the fire service: having to drag around dead weight firefighters that no one wants to step up and discipline. If the captain or the chief does discipline, but it is inconsistent or not standardized between the shifts/personnel creates a barrier to effective leadership. The purpose of discipline should be to enforce the rules and standards that are valued by management, provide feedback, reaffirm expectations, and promote fairness through consistency. It doesn’t have to be negative/involve punishment or be confrontational. We can discipline ourselves. Set clear, achievable goals and a reasonable timeline to help yourself meet your job expectations. Additionally, always offer support and guidance to coworkers. After all, we are a family. One of my failures is deploying congruent discipline to all of my subordinates. I will remedy this with clear, concise, obtainable objectives.
#6. Fostering accountability:
Leaders need to take ownership for their actions and decisions both up and down the chain of command. Hold everyone accountable. We are the best fire department in our town/city/county/state/country. We set the bar. We should be the organization that other departments want to emulate. We have the opportunity to be a great place to work, but it starts with trust, motivating your crew, and taking ownership. As a driver, backstep firefighter, or riding the seat; it is your job and responsibility to keep your office, apparatus, and office space clean. Learn what motivates your personnel and use those techniques to instill a sense of pride and ownership in the work we do. Polish your shoes, the chrome on the rig, and that badge on your chest. I am working towards leading by example, a good example.
#7. Organizing our standardized operating procedures:
The departments SOP’s must be readily available. Show me the SOP’s and make me read them. Read them out loud to me. Make me sign that I understand and have read them. Hold me accountable. Hold everyone accountable. Set the rules and make me follow them. NO EXCEPTIONS. Foster a consistent team. You set the tone. Complacency kills. Keeping a positive attitude during your whole shift will instill a sense of purpose and pride in the job that they do every day. Encourage people to remain positive and do things to cultivate that pride, ownership, and positivity. Put in the same effort that you want from people. Accolades and “Atta-boys” go a long way in recognition. It doesn’t have to be coins, award ceremonies, or bonuses. Just acknowledge the type of behavior you want to retain and inspire. I am going to stop focusing on the negative.
#8. Developing effective communication skills:
Ineffective communication hurts the public, your crew, and also the department. A leader that doesn’t listen isn’t approachable. One that is inaccessible will create barriers. If they don’t know how to articulate themselves, or they are socially withdrawn, the results can be devastating. Having effective communication skills is vital when it comes to leadership. Communications is more than just being able to speak and write. Communicating effectively means you keep your crews informed, when possible, of daily events that will affect them and the way they perform their regular duties. Nobody likes surprises. Make sure that you keep the lines of communication open. Open communication between you and your crews gains respect. I am going to do better by practicing my public speaking, mentoring more firefighters, and calling my mother more often.
#9. Be receptive and take input on ideas:
Another barrier to effective leadership in the fire service is acting like you have all the answers, you know everything, you don’t need input from anybody, and there’s no humility. People find it very difficult to buy into missions and visions they didn’t help create, so get input! It is our department too, let us be a part of it. Tap into experience. This administration perpetuates the notion that no firefighter is different than the other. However, we all have different experience levels and training. Tap into that, it is a free resource and gives people a purpose. Let me teach; let me share; let me impart my experience on another coworker. It builds bonds, trust, and opens an avenue for potential leaders that can rise. Don’t forget the words “please” and “thank you” when asking personnel to complete a task (outside incident operations). These phrases will take you a long way in respect and motivation of your staff. I will be humble, share my thoughts and ideas, and continue to foster an efficient team.
#10. Cultivating trust:
Now, I want you to think about this one for a minute because this is huge. Do you know what the most effective way is to build and maintain a high level of trust? Do what you say you’re going to do when you said you would do it and how you said it would get done. Let your words mean something. If people can’t depend on you, they won’t trust you. I read a great quote once, “Trust is a lot like fine China; once broken, it can be repaired, but it’s never quite the same.” It ties into the lack of personal morality. This actually causes followers to be very reluctant about standing behind a leader. If you demonstrate a lack of personal integrity, you will have a huge uphill battle winning the trust of your followers again. A simple way to exude honor is pride in appearance. Perception is everything. YOU ARE THE EXAMPLE. Dress the part. Practice decorum. The statement still holds true, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” I believe one way I can nurture trust in my co-workers and my leadership is to solicit advice, counsel, and train with them.
#11. Sponsor effective training:
Train with your crew. Training is a vital part of what we do, now more than ever. Convey the importance of training with your crews. Make each shift a training day. If there is no formal training scheduled on a particular shift, take the crew out for driver’s training. Get the rope bag out and brush up on your knots or learn some new ones. Practice buddy breathing with your self-contained breathing apparatus. Practice a rapid intervention scenario. Practice putting up ladders behind the firehouse. Pre-plan a building that you’re not familiar with, discuss the layout, construction type, and the potential risks and hazards. Would a rescue be a concern, and if so, where and how would you deal with it if it happened? What are the exposures? Where is the nearest water supply and is it enough to sustain a prolonged fire attack? Would this be an offensive or a defensive incident? What hazardous materials do you need to address? The more you train with your personnel, the more comfortable you will be with them, and they will trust you as their officer. Remember, this profession is a team effort. Freelancing will get you killed. This comes back to complacency. I am going to lead more training, developing new training modules, and sign up for more classes.
#12. Encourage time spent with the troops:
Staff officers are sometimes viewed as out-of-touch with what’s actually going on in the station. This can create an obstacle and should be addressed immediately. Be a good listener. Be open to what your crew has to say. Take time to be a good listener. If one of your crewmembers needs or wants to discuss something with you, make a chance to do so. Save what you’re working on your computer, put your cell phone on vibrate, and assign another crewmember to answer the phone to take messages for you. Such behavior shows your personnel that you honestly care about your crew and what they have to say. This behavior also instills respect from your personnel. Being a good listener is probably one of the most important ways to inspire trust and respect in your personnel. We must not forget that we are under the watchful eye of the entire community. We must hold ourselves to a higher regard than the other departments. If leadership is embarrassed to acknowledge us, then the community will follow suit. All due to the examples that the leadership sets. Don’t ostracize our department and co-workers. Don’t ignore us. Every day should be an open house at the fire department. I have an open door policy, I eat meals with the staff, I offer greetings and handshakes, and you should too.
#13. Inspire free thinking leaders:
This applies to informal leaders who are attempting to share ideas. One of the obstructions to effective leadership in the fire service is there is not enough freedom for free-thinking leaders. Informal leaders are squashed, and supervisory or positional leaders are very threatened by them. There is a fear of retaliation. Regardless of their position, whether it was a firefighter, lieutenant, captain, or command staff, they aren’t free reigned enough to put their ideas out there or say what’s wrong, or what needs to be fixed because they’re afraid they will be retaliated against. People need to feel safe coming forward with their ideas, suggestions, and input. And if you’re the one coming forward, you need to do it with respect and humility. As a formal leader, don’t use your positional power to try to keep people in line. Use your positive influence, your vision, and your role model example. Be a supervisor. A supervisor is the team leader, overseer, coach, facilitator, and a manager in a position of trust. It is your job to make sure that work is completed safely, effectively, and promptly. I am going to hold a meeting with my staff to solicit ideas, concerns, and comments to take to the Chief. They work for me; it is my duty to work for them.
#14. Provide mentors in the fire service:
When people are thrown into positions, they’re expected just to figure it out, and it’s frustrating. It’s not just rookie firefighters who need mentoring. Officers & veteran firefighters need it as well. Everyone needs good mentoring and good role modeling to look to in the fire service for good leadership. As a mentor, don’t be afraid to relinquish some of your information, your duties, and your valuable knowledge to the personnel who will be following in your footsteps some day. That is how the next generation will learn your position. Yes, I said YOUR position. None of us are permanent fixtures in the fire service. I have worked with officers who are afraid that if their secrets get out, someone will advance in front of them, or worse yet, take all their glory. Remember, firefighting is a team effort. Not one single person can do this profession alone. A good officer is also a good teacher. Lead by example. This year, I am going to mentor more firefighters and I am going to seek out a professional mentor for myself.
#15. Nurture respect:
We should not be condescending. Rather, we should be approachable, friendly, and inviting. The city/municipality/town judges us regularly; not by the leadership, uniforms, or effectiveness to extinguish fires, but rather by that one asshole that runs his/her mouth at the bar, public gatherings, or on social media. Respect is earned! It doesn’t come with a uniform, position, or title. Remember that a leader must lead from the front. An officer should strive to better himself/herself every day. It is your responsibility to motivate and keep your people heading in the right direction. It is also your responsibility to keep yourself motivated, educated, and up with the newest trends, management, and leadership skills, as well as equipment in the fire service. Never coast along because it only hurts those who want to do a good job. Morale will suffer if you don’t care. Motivate your crew. As a driver, back step firefighter, or riding the seat; it is your job and responsibility to keep your crew motivated. Keeping a positive attitude within your whole shift will instill a sense of purpose and pride in the job that they do every day. Learn what motivates your personnel and use those techniques to instill a sense of pride and ownership in the work we do. I am spending 2017 making my crew, department, and myself better. I want to work for a world-class fire department, so with these 15 resolutions, I am creating it; a world-class department that I have always wanted to work for.
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.”
Every Fire Department has that supervisor that is incapable of leading, whether it is the Chief that hides in his/her office, the Station Captain that made an egregious error on a call, or Lieutenant that is assigned to the first due engine. We have all worked with them and it drives all of us crazy. We talk about their deficiencies at the next call, during meals, and even gripe to our families.
The single biggest decision that the command staff can make to affect the entire department—bigger than all the rest— is who they promote. When you promote the wrong person to manage others, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits, not time off—nothing.
The Peter principle is a concept in management theory formulated by Laurence J. Peter and published nearly half a century ago. The theory is that the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate’s performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. Thus, employees only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively, and “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”
- When you do good you get promoted into to something you are terrible at. A typical example in the fire service is promoting a Master Technician/Driver to the Lieutenant position. Knowing the intricacies of your apparatus, your response area, and your complex equipment does not always prepare you to manage people. All your experience and technical know-how is going to be stuck behind a desk, making schedules, writing reports, and concocting performance evaluations. These competencies are vastly different and a proficiency in engineer/operator type of job does not correlate to managing people, personalities, and conflicts. If you are not prepared for your new position in a leadership role as a Lieutenant, you will do yourself and your crew a disservice
- You won’t get fired or replaced you will just remain stagnant in your new position. Possibly because the manager above you has reached their threshold of incompetence as well. They are unable to realize how unproductive you are in your position. The subordinates will adapt and will now just work around you seeking advice from other more effective managers or subordinate leaders.
- When you are competent you have recordable and obvious output. You are being held accountable for that production, once it stops and there is little or no output, you are now judged by the input. This input is your demeanor, attitude, punctuality, friendliness, loyalty, and helpfulness. However, if you are too competent you make the immobile managers look bad. Thus jeopardizing your position in the hierarchy or worse being promoted to a higher position that you aren’t adequately equipped for, succumbing to the axiom, “Certified, not qualified”
- The principle suggests that this incompetence is inevitable. So as you progress in your fire service career, you need to decide whether you are going to jump on the train headed toward the void called “Final Placement”. This last station is an ominous place, where you will wear down with a fruitless future, or take your time and forestall this as long as possible. You can slow this locomotive by mentoring the person that took your old position while providing a performance plan to meet your own standards. Another avenue is to seek out your own mentor, to provide you guidance, advice, and discuss your performance objectives for your new career path. Lastly, there is training, these are courses on leadership, management, and organizational tactics to address this pervasive incompetence.
- If your intent is to race to the finish line, then just latch on to the superiors, doing all you can to gain a premature promotion, stepping on as many backs and shoulders as you can, climbing to the top. Once they are your subordinates you will be able to change things for the better, set new rules, and lead your former coworkers. This is a delusion that comes with a price. Don’t be surprised if your shift, crew, or company start seeking transfers, new assignments, or increase their leave usage. Victor Lipman a former Fortune 500 Manager, published an article, postulating, people don’t leave jobs, they leave bad managers.
- If you are astute enough to realize that you don’t want to be hurled into career limbo, you need to seek out places you are productive, useful, and happy. Once there, you should forego seeking promotion, better yet focus on mastering your craft, self-betterment, and even mentoring subordinates. You are a wealth of knowledge, now go and make others’ lives richer. I am not advising you to refuse promotions, just be prepared to accept the new position and its responsibilities since they may vary drastically from your former position.
- We can’t just fire all of our incompetent managers, it will create a vortex. They are useful in the sense of, they will inflict the least amount of damage on the productive people in your department. The competent employees will maintain a non-threatening illusion that these managers are useful, are producing, and cling to a bright future. All of this to avoid repeating this vicious cycle of new incompetent managers.
The Harvard Business Review has 4 decades of business articles providing solutions to curb the endemic management dilemma. It is not just the Fire Service, this problem arises in every institution, career, and organization, you will never be able to escape its reach. From a subordinate’s point of view, every department I have worked for has a repetitious cycle of the deficient leadership. Generations of fire service managers have been fraught with incompetent leaders. It is the duty of our managers to address bad bosses by improving their own leadership skills, becoming a good boss, and stop promoting the incapable. Our jobs as subordinates is to manage ourselves well, be engaged, be committed to the organization with purpose, principle, and pride.
You know, this started out as a Facebook status, but I…I had to keep writing and adding to it.
You see, today (Monday 9/12/16 – the day after the 15 year anniversary of the twin tower attacks) I’m in the weight room. I’m cracked out on pre-workout, doing chest day. Slamming weight in silence; no headphones, no TV. Nothing. Just the weight.
Today, I have a lot on my mind. And I mean a lot.
This weekend I met firefighters from around the globe, I met rookies and chiefs. I met FDNY firemen. I met pipers and drummers.
Let me back up, Saturday the 10th was my 31st birthday. I also did the 911 Memorial Stair Climb in Dallas that day. That’s when my mind started this post.
On Sunday, I met Jeff Cool, FDNY “Black Sunday” survivor. I met John Walters, FDNY 9/11/01 survivor. I scaled another 110 floor stair climb in Ft Worth that was open to firefighters and anybody wanting to climb for a fallen military member or first responder.
Today, before I came to the gym, I learned of a fireman from my department that was a career fireman, and currently a volunteer, is in grave condition due to cancer.
This is where my mind is at; if you’re still here reading this, then thank you. I’m getting to the point soon, I promise.
There are millions of motivational fitness and fire service training quotes, articles, and pictures out there, but for firemen, there are two that I can think of.
One: Get fit and train for the people you serve.
Two: Get fit and train for the people that would do ANYTHING to be able to walk in your shoes again.
We owe it to the men and women in and out of the fire service to be as selfless as possible.
The fire service has never been about self, nor should it be, in my opinion. People asked, “Why are you doing two climbs? You’re crazy!”
I didn’t do it for me. I did it for those who can’t. I took names to the top of those towers that are deceased FDNY firefighters. I took names and memories of friends and family that are deceased or not physically able to climb.
A good friend’s father passed away awhile back, I wore his name on my helmet. I brought up memories of his pride in his son and his friendliness towards me in my heart. There’s many others that where in my heart as well. My grandfathers, grandmothers and so on…
The team from my dept took OUR (ownership…different article for another day) department name to the top in Dallas, while our department, short staffed, took a beating from 911 calls at home.
Sometimes we have to beat the hell out of our own bodies while we have the ability to do-so. We should do it for the people that’d love to be healthy enough to do it too.