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
What makes us fit for duty? Training.
What training are we referring to? Tasks used to perform our job. Whether it be a technical rescue, hazmat knowledge, ARFF, district familiarization or countless other avenues, as firefighters we are called upon to know an extremely wide range of skills to perform our duties and go home at the end of our shifts.
While this knowledge is part of the necessary tools needed to perform, almost half of our brothers and sisters who pay the ultimate price do so because of overexertion. When called upon to fight fires, it takes an enormous amount of physical exertion to do our job, yet we aren’t physically training for the arduous tasks we will probably encounter.
That’s where Firefit Firefighter Fitness Trainer comes in. This machine mimics the most strenuous of fireground activities in a compact unit that will fit in the corner of most fire station truck rooms. In some cases, departments are replacing the cumbersome entrance exam equipment with Firefit. It’s turn key, requires virtually no set up and is modeled after the CPAT, with a couple of exceptions of course. Just drag the machine from the truck room to the station apron, or use it inside if you have the space for it.
Firefit was created and tested by Randy Johnson, a 14 yr firefighter in the Texas Panhandle, 13 of those as a career firefighter. His personal results while doing a six-week testing program were nothing short of phenomenal. Starting with his heart rate, Day 1 resting heart rate was 66, working HR in the 180’s and recovery time to resting was 14 minutes. His body fat was 22%. Weight was 202. After six weeks using Firefit as his only training, and only on duty for a total usage of 15 times, his HR was in the 150’s during the workout; recovery time dropped to 4.5 minutes! Randy lost 7 lbs, gained back 2 (probably muscle), and lost 4% bodyfat.
While these results are amazing in themselves, the reason for the creation of Firefit, according to Randy, is to reduce the number of names we put on the wall in Colorado Springs and Emmitsburg every September and October, respectively. After all, isn’t that the goal and why we train to be the best at what we do?
I know of a few departments around me who don’t let their juniors do anything, and by anything I mean throwing ladders, stretching lines, hitting a hydrant…You know, the basic things every firefighter should be 100% efficient at.
Up at my company, we look at juniors as the future of our company. They are involved in meetings, drills, hall rentals, cleaning. Everything a senior member can do at the station, a junior member can also.
I’m from a company in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, called Munhall Volunteer Fire Company #5. We run a Tower-Ladder, an Engine, and a Squad. In our borough, we have four different stations, one located at each end, and two in the middle. I can’t say we are a busy company, but every time we go to a call, we do it quick, proficient, and right. I really can’t stress enough about having a junior program in your stations. When I first started out, I was 14. I joined a company in the hometown I lived in, and it was called Whitaker. They ran two Engines, a Squad, and a Foam Unit. I fell in love with it the first day I joined. My dad was and still is the Assistant Chief there, and he helped me get through everything tremendously. If it weren’t for them having that junior program, I would’ve never had as much passion for the fire service as I do now.
After two years, I moved on down the street to the station I’m currently at. I joined when I was 16, and right when I joined they only allowed members 16 and up. But a few months had passed, and we changed our by-laws and are now able to allow members to join at 14. That was by far the best decision our company has ever made. We currently have seven junior members. I was the 8th, but I just recently turned 18 and have become a fully active member. When I was a junior, we had a junior officer line. I was the Junior Chief, my buddy Jake was the Captain, and the Chief’s son was the Lieutenant. Being able to already hold an officer position at that age was like winning an Emmy.
You must be thinking, “Oh, okay, they just had a title…” No, we had duties and responsibilities to handle by ourselves.
Me being the Junior Chief, my duty was to train the juniors up to my level and make sure they know the ins and outs of the fire hall. I was a pretty educated kid at that age, and I had my brother and my two uncles help me out along the way. Several times at drill, they put me as the lead guy, the front man, the role model for the other juniors to look up too. When I first started this, I would always wonder why they put a 16-year-old up on stage to teach the SENIOR guys. It took me two long years to realize why. The only way you are going to better yourself is by trying to better other people. If it weren’t for this junior program, I wouldn’t be as smart or as trained as I am right now.
When I teach at our weekly drill, I look at it from a junior’s perspective. I can see what they do and don’t understand; I was in their shoes for 99% of my time so far. No matter what we do at drill, the juniors do the same. When we cut holes in our simulator, they are right there doing the same thing. They watch us, then they do it. When they do it, we go step-by-step with them, making sure they don’t mess up, but when they do, we reassure them it’s okay. When you’re training, that is the time to make those mistakes. You learn a lot more from the mistakes than doing it right.
Many people criticize and bash juniors for being untrained “whackers.” Well, start training them. Get them involved with EVERYTHING. Every single time you’re at the station with them, go over the trucks, throw ladders, pull some lines, learn what every tool does and their names, learn the role of the officers, learn the different truck and engine duties. Teach every single junior how you would want someone coming to your house at 3 in the morning for a working fire. After all, those juniors will fill your shoes one day.
If you don’t have a junior program or you don’t train your juniors because they aren’t certified, then step up. Make a difference in a young person’s life and be their role model. Be the one that when they say they first started out, you helped them. There is no better feeling in this world than making someone’s life better, if you don’t think that is true, you’re in the wrong line of work. Every time you go to a call and see an elderly woman standing in her doorway telling you guys that the fire alarm was an accident, you check to make sure, and you smile and say have a good night to her. You just made her feel safer and one of the happiest people in this world. She now knows that when trouble occurs, people that have never even met her will drop ANYTHING to save her and that my friends is one of the greatest feelings you can have. Do not take this job lightly. Train, stay fit and treat everyone fairly. Just remember, you were a junior at one point in time also. Make sure all your other juniors act in the same manner of courtesy to that elderly woman, as you did.
– Jonathan Scripp
Munhall VFC #5
Mother’s Day is right around the corner, so it only seems fitting that I should write about women in today’s fire service. I don’t know about you, but I can’t advise messing with someone who can both endure childbirth and swing a halligan. Cheese, light-hearted humor, mild controversy, and hard truths are all present and accounted for in my bag of writing tricks this morning. Let’s begin…
You walk through the front door of your local fire department on your first day on the job. You’ve dreamt of this very moment since your dad took you to see ‘Ladder 49’ as a little girl. The bay smells like diesel exhaust and various cleaning products, and the dining area smells of coffee and fresh kitchen table BS. Yes, this is exactly what you had hoped it would be like. A crisp blue uniform and black boots with nary a scuff or blood borne pathogen to be found on them.
You went to fire school and raised ladders, humped hose, slayed simulated dragons and dragged rescue dummies (some dummies even had pulses). You attended EMT classes and had your Hollywood expectations of life-saving heroics demolished, just like all that came before you. You’ve waded through interviews, physicals, psych evals and polygraphs to earn a chance here.
Your dad gave you parting advice as you left this morning; “You’re the new guy. Be seen and not heard, always be the last to eat and the first to wash dishes. Pay attention to your LT. Love you.” Some of the guys seem distant this morning, others, jovial. The coffee must not have kicked in yet.
Your gear is issued, and you get to work.
Fast forward to one month in; You’re growing as a firefighter. The things you learned in class are finally starting to make more (or less) sense, but you still feel out-of-place. ‘Maybe it’s me,’ you’ve asked yourself once or twice. Most of your new coworkers are genuinely good guys, but a select few either treat you like a fragile porcelain doll or a hindrance that they must bear the weight of for 24 hours.
You’re becoming increasingly agitated by romantic advances from co-workers and have even heard rumors swirling about your involvement with several of the guys from other shifts. True or not, why is this news any of their concern?
There have been grumblings from out of shape firemen about your physical ability to do this job. Despite passing all of the physical requirements and being able to stretch an SCBA cylinder to its very limits, you still catch shit from a guy that perspires at the mere mention of physical exertion.
“I weigh 300lbs; there’s no way she can drag me out of a fire!”
‘So, don’t weigh 300lbs,’ you think to yourself. A lack of dietary self-control on his part has somehow morphed into a negative remark about you. Is this guy for real?
There are plenty of other whispered criticisms; she’s a distraction, some jobs are better left to the men, she only got hired to boost diversity numbers, etc.
This isn’t what it was supposed to be like.
Why do you feel like an outsider, the constant third wheel of the firehouse?
You were told this would be the beginning of the best years of your life, working alongside people who will become like family to you. If any of this was indeed true, you are off to a slow start…
Sparing my dramatic liberties, this is what the fire service might look like to your female coworkers. Hopefully, the overwhelming majority of women reading this are scratching their heads, having never encountered this kind of issue at work. I sincerely wish for that, that all of this was simply make-believe. Unfortunately, we know that more than a few will relate quite well. On a more somber related note, a female firefighter recently committed suicide. Her actions are believed to have been sparked, at least in part, by workplace harassment. She was the topic of crude online comments, rumors, and stories. The information that was uncovered during the investigation will leave an ugly scar on the department forever, regardless of its role in her choice. Suicides rates are statistically higher in public service careers; this is not disputed. Did her “brothers” throw gasoline on a fire that was already burning hot enough on its own? Given this knowledge, any excuse you might have for the kind of treatment faced by our fictional firefighter described at the outset of this discussion is a bad one. Don’t be an ass.
How long has this gone on? I don’t know. Probably since the first woman picked up her first ax on her first horse-drawn, steam-powered fire engine.
The first known female firefighter in the United States was Molly Williams (per i-women.com Terese M. Floren 2007), a New York City slave who became a firefighter with Oceanus Engine Co. #11 in 1815. The first paid urban career female firefighter in the United States? Sarah Forcier in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1973. Women have been “Doin’ it” in the US of A for over 200 years, but it is still news when “insert name here,” Texas Fire Department hires their first female employee.
The reason is clear; this has been a boy’s club for generation after generation, and some opponents of change are being dragged into 2017 kicking and screaming. We all have worked with, met or know of one of these guys. Don’t play dumb. Hell, maybe you are that guy.
Ask yourself what your department looks like through the eyes of your female co-workers and their families. Why stop there? These same arguments can be made by anyone that feels disenfranchised by public service. The topic may be Mother’s Day-themed, but the message is about common decency.
So, is your department or shift one that makes them go home and tell their families about the great group of brothers they work with, or one that makes them go home and question their career choices? I have a wife. I claim sisters of the blood, marital and fire service variety. I have a mother, aunts, grandmothers. I have a daughter (love you, kid, if you’re reading this someday). If they were to follow me to work one day, would they approve of the way I treat my sisters in service? I like to think they would. Would yours?
There’s a fine line to be considered here. The line between making someone feel like a welcome member of the department, and treating someone differently in a way that makes them feel like an outsider. The line between innocent fun and downright bullying, between including them in questionable (see; fun) antics and being overprotective. If you must ask yourself if your department falls over the line, it’s probably time to change the culture of your department. The women I have met doing this job have no interest in special treatment or coddling. In fact, nearly all just want to be “one of the crew.” Nothing more, certainly nothing less. Many of them may not even like that I am writing this piece because in perhaps the very truest of firefighter fashions they don’t want to draw attention to themselves.
“I’m not changing the culture of my department, there’s no reason. They joined us, we didn’t join them.”
In the words of Maya Angelou; “if you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
Folks, the time has come to change some attitudes. To provide a pleasant nudge in the right direction, here are a few guidelines to aid in your future decision-making processes. These guidelines can apply to almost all of life’s situations, I have found.
-If it wouldn’t be funny to be said about (or to) your little brother or sister, it probably won’t be funny about (or to) most of your co-workers.
-If it would be embarrassing to have your family overhear you speak that way about someone, don’t speak it.
-If it feels wrong, it probably is.
-Always assume your mother is creeping just over your shoulder, ready to pounce and twist your ear while dragging you off-screen (using your FULL NAME, of course).
-It is possible to be both a brother and a gentleman.
-You don’t get to decide what should and should not be hurtful, offensive, or irritating to another. This is a tough concept for many to grasp.
To bring it all home, let’s talk about how this affects me because that’s what’s really important here, right?
It’s a hurdle I’ll never have to worry about jumping, so why even drag it out and open myself to (mostly) good-natured heat? What, if anything, do I stand to profit?
I have skin in the game. I’ll explain;
Someday, my daughter may decide to follow in my footsteps. I genuinely hope that she inherits her mother’s brains and grows up to become a rocket scientist, but I won’t stand in her way. I do worry about what kind of legacy we might be leaving behind for her and others; it doesn’t seem fair that she should have to inherit our messes. “Painful” might not be a strong enough word to describe how it would feel to watch one of my children struggle against antiquated typecasting that I had a hand in cultivating, whether by indifference or otherwise. Lastly, my daughter will inevitably run into coworkers of mine, both past and current, if she decides to enter public service. What might they have to share about me, what kinds of stories do I want to be told about me to my offspring? Will they reinforce her (hopefully) cherished memories of Firefighter Dad, protector, and friend, or will they tarnish them?
Will she be forced to question which man was the real me, “Work Dad” or “Home Dad?”
It’s up to me, I suppose.
Yours is up to you.
Happy Mother’s Day
– Randy Anderson
You know, the small boy in my heart has always wanted to be a fireman, and I’ve always been a little envious of the guys that get to wear the big names on their coats i.e. Dallas, Ft Worth, Houston, New York, Boston…even Amarillo, Lubbock and so on…..
But my coat says Vernon, and you know what, we do the same job with 10% of the personnel, but 10x the heart…I couldn’t be prouder of MY dept.
We don’t need the big name, and we obviously will do this job with much less than the big city paycheck because we vowed to protect our community and our community’s belongings.
Take ownership in YOUR trucks, YOUR department, YOUR crew, YOUR name on your coat. Take pride in making those things shine like a diamond through cleaning, preparing, and training. Push through the shitty days and relish in the days that are call-free or full of the “fun stuff.” That kind of investment in YOUR department will only drive you to continue to grow and “leave it better than you found it.”
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?
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.
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.