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This is an OP-ED piece to stimulate thought, self-evaluation, and perhaps some discussion.

Right, wrong, always, and never. If you, the reader, and I have had a fire service conversation then you know that I take issue with these words regarding our trade. Preferably, BEST PRACTICES are how we jointly describe the actions we take in all aspects of our day-to-day work. What was great yesterday may not be right for tomorrow. Of course, we never abandoned all – it is a constant process of refinement- CANI (continuous and never-ending improvement).

Always and Never. To this day I remember asking a question of a senior firefighter and his response was “we’ve always done it that way”. Many of you certainly had this experience as well. The answer is terrible in so many ways, but for today’s discussion let us look at this differently. Throughout the course of a day you read, see, hear, and view a variety of opinions on a myriad of topics. In the fire service, a typical response to a picture, video, or training post is “this is how we do it” or “we would never do it that way”. What is the common theme through all of these answers? ALWAYS, NEVER or WE?

Something struck me while reading a comment by a firefighter in regards to a video. “We always go in”. These days many people take offence to the ‘always go in’ part (conversely some presume others ‘always hit it hard from the yard’). Perhaps it is not the going in part we should concern ourselves with, but the WE.

Groupthink – a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints.

Decisions (not implying directives from IC to personnel) often are made without reaching a true consensus and the reasons vary. In the fire service, groupthink has already occurred when statements like the previously mentioned  “we’ve always done it that way” surface. Our methodology comes from best practices, within our current frame of reference, and should survive only when we continue to observe favorable outcomes, while refining. What is more important – our people understand why we are doing it this way. Answering the why question helps ensure everyone understands and is capable, but also prevents groupthink mentality; doing it because it is popular within the group not because it is ‘right’. Groupthink also transfers, meaning it permeates through out the organization on down the line. How much of what you do doesn’t make sense to perform anymore? Or at least in the fashion/manner it is being performed. This works in the opposite direction as well. An example is equipment checks. Are they being performed in a fashion conducive with the intent or are they completed because it is a box that needs to be checked? Groupthink molds a belief system which is passed on regardless if it is positive or negative; all dependent upon if it is normalized.

A lot more factors go along with this, and I think it is better for a in-person conversation. My main point and conclusion is this. In the fire service we should not make statements like always and never, there are too many gray areas and times for deviation. At the end of the day those people that are making these statements care less about the always and never, as they truly care about the WE element. When someone sees something or is told something that goes against what WE decided, WE do, or how WE act, they take it personally. Even if that individual wasn’t part of the initial WE that made that decision. WE are a team, WE are staked in tradition, WE are proud of what WE do as an organization. If we are truly to come together as a cohesive group, we all need to be on the same page and have opportunity to voice our concerns to the always and never situations. ‘WE’ is a good thing and we accomplish great things, due to the diversity of knowledge, experience, and team mentality. However, each of us needs to understand that many times it is not ‘us versus them’, it is simply we, and we can do it differently to achieve a result. The type of results achieved is up to you.

-HUSTON

 

What fire service values do you emphasize? A job well done or the pseudo-culture within? The trends come and go; the bandwagons make their stops and move along with those who played for their 15 minutes. However, this leaves our emergency scenes with a large gap open for public criticism. So I ask again, where do you place your emphasis?

The public takes notice when you cannot lift, carry, and throw a ladder. They pay attention when the first due unit does not make the correct address the first time. When you leave staging after receiving an assignment then need to go back to the truck to get a tool, do you think that they may question why you did not have one to start with. They see when you struggle to pull, stretch, and hold onto a hose line. Water supply ran out, they see that too. Struggling with donning your SCBA on the front step? Yep, they took notice. Do you run laps around the rig, stopping at every compartment looking for a tool because you do not know your apparatus? Bet they can tell you do not know where it is.

What they do not see or even care about is what type of helmet you wear with that ever so perfect ‘bend’. Those nifty gadgets from the trade show that will help you “do your job” better, as they slowly sink to the bottom of your pocket – the family in the front yard doesn’t care. Nor do they recognize if you are fighting the fire with a smoothbore or combination nozzle. Last, but not least what color your turn out gear is, the color of your truck, or what department name is solving their problem; AS LONG AS THE PROBLEM IS GOING AWAY!

Perception, noun – the act of perceiving or the ability to perceive; mental grasp of objects, qualities, etc., by means of awareness; comprehension.

We can either concentrate our energy on ensuring the public perceives us, as we want to be seen – professional public servants that have duty, honor, pride, and compassion. Alternatively, we can waste time concerned with how other firefighters see us. The choice is yours.

Our fire service overflows with traditions, many of which are internal only. Stress the importance of skills over swag. Once you can do the job, then you have earned the privilege of the internal cultural embellishments.

Being a Firefighter requires plenty of introspection and evaluation of our own attitudes. What does it mean to be a Firefighter? This answer is different for each one of us. The commonality is that we must come together as a team to serve our fellow man. Not only must we be cohesive to solve the problem we are responding to, we must band together to ensure all tools, equipment, and knowledge is ready for the call. Keep in mind the other roles you play in your life..husband, wife, brother, mother, son, father, sister, cousin, friend, co-worker, teacher…are affected by the action, or lack of action, when standing in the role of Firefighter.

Please watch this video and reflect on what the title of Firefighter means to you.

 

In the public and political arena, the fire department is an easy target. Our organization is service driven, we pick up those who fall, and seek to make their problem go away. Some view those we serve as customers, but mostly they are friends, family, neighbors, and strangers who become opportunities to help. Yet, when we make mistakes, or for reasons unknown have targets on our backs, we do not get to close up shop, we do not get to provide poor services, and we certainly cannot refer them to another “office,” as we no longer will accept them as clients. We must persevere and stay on course; execute the mission we swore an oath to fulfill.

What can be done? Retribution, revenge, reprisal? Of course not, those are not the characteristics of who we are. We carry on, heads held high. In fact, we work harder to show our mettle-courage and fortitude-as we have honor in our craft. The harder road leaves us apt to endure, to holdfast, and maintain with vigor. The same applies during an operation. Without the countless hours of preparation, a bad day could be worse. When time is spent picking low-lying fruit, how do you expect to rise to the top and take on the tough issues? Mediocre preparation leaves sub-mediocre results.

Where do we go from here? My answer, the one I give for myself as to why I do this; impact. Of all the ways to earn a living wage, all the ways to spend our time here on Earth, it is about making an impact. Maybe you pull a lifeless body from a burning building and they make a full recovery. Maybe you make your way through icy waters, mangled cars, scenes of violence, or any of the assorted incidents we respond to when called upon; to make an impact on a living creature, prized possessions, or livelihoods. We also impact each other. Maybe it is the Officer-Firefighter mentorship, the Firefighter-Firefighter bond, or the Father and the Son, the opportunities to make an impact as endless. If it wasn’t for my grandfather recommending my father to join the fire department, I would not have found my life’s work. Life would be different and I suspect far less worthwhile.

We have chosen the fire service as our medium to make an impact on someone else’s life. To those who have personal agendas, desire only to make waves, and are blind to what our mission truly means, you cannot stop us. We will persevere, we will forge on, and the true believers retain the fortitude to see the mission through.

“The question is not how far, the question is do you possess the constitution, the depth of faith to go as far as is needed?’

 

They are easy to identify, speaking their own language, filled with me, mine, and I. With the mirrored shield they carry, deflecting not self-reflecting. Blame the tool, blame the Chief, blame the system, never blame the fool; for their own short-comings.

We are out there, we the keepers of the faith. Our passion is what thrives in us, and use your deflections as fuel to drive us. One more set in the gym, lose one more ounce of sweat, the first to pull the line, the last to pack it away, we are out there each and every day.

As you attempt to bring us down to your level, our inertia expands the distance between failure, success, and excellence. The knowledge, the performance, the attitude, and the passion, all used to transfer your deflections into purpose, fulfill our mission. We are here for the long haul, that is why we are the Keepers of the Faith.

"We control our actions, at the end of the day you are responsible for what you have done."

 

Sometimes I ask ‘what is all this worth? Why do I try, why do I even bother?’ The message falls on deaf ears, the hours wasted as they would rather be somewhere else, engagement lacking. Instead of conversations and respectful debates, the sound of one sided monologues of ‘my tactic is better than your tactic’ divide us further when we should be learning from one another. There are other skills I possess, other trades for which I can ‘make a living.’ Then as I gaze around the group of Firefighters congregated for a post-incident brief, I see four men who I would follow to certain perdition, and they I, it is not about making a living it is about making a life!

Through the years I have always stayed in touch whenever we lose one of brethren. This time it hit close to home. It was close, it was real, I was there. Although not directly involved in the situation, myself and another Firefighter from my department were there with our tanker. It was surreal, indescribable, when we first heard the event unfold.

Since then I have reflected, questioned, and analyzed my motives for being in the Fire Service. I called my dad to talk, I talked to friends, Firefighters, and brothers. To add more turmoil to the day a close friend, co-worker, and brother Firefighter lost his father the same day. Something inside me brewed, deep, down, and dark. Life is so very fragile, so very short, nothing can be taken for granted.

Then the answer I was looking for came during a short and casual conversation, “can we train Saturday?” At my part-paid department our Cadet program allows for High School students to train as Firefighters, earn credit, and they do this for free. Our one Cadet asks the most important question, he said 3 words that bring such solace to my ears, CAN WE TRAIN? All the questions, all the doubts, all the apathy washed away from such a monotonous statement. A young man, just 17, understands what this profession is about and he already gives so much to it.

Why do we do what we do? Why do we continue on this mission? Why are we so passionate about this trade that we take every statement that may possibly contradict what we do, so personally? The passion, the drive, the honor we feel are not simple words, but complex feelings that no one until they have seen what we have seen, been where we have been, and experienced what we have experienced will ever feel. Some feel the brotherhood is a right they deserve when they enter our doors the first time. Many feel the brotherhood is lost to the bickering found on social media. Brotherhood. A word that I have heard since a very young age from my father and grandfather. No one definition exist and it is not something that just happens. The brotherhood isn’t something you find, it is something that finds, and defines you! When you need it, when you truly need it, the brotherhood will find you. We will remember our fallen and we will always keep the faith.

What is Leadership? Can it be taught? Can it be learned? Leadership, in my eyes, is relative to the direction you personally want to go. Those who are true Leaders, in the sense they may not hold authority or a position of power, are those you strive to emulate. You will always look to multiple influences and seek many mentors. One single person does not  have all the traits you seek to increase your own abilities or eliminate your weaknesses. To seek just one to look to for Leadership will be near impossible to do.

True Leaders are natural Leaders. Their values, character, traits, and ethos are just who there are. Sure, they may have experienced some events in their lives or even learned some tips from a class, but they were developed  because of a perspicacity to the world around them. Every interaction, every fire run, every time a situation transpired, they took something of value from it. A week long seminar or a 2 hour training does not make you a Leader, putting some best practices to work help you develop your quality.

“Be the kind of Leader that you would follow.”

This entry is not about me telling you how to be a Leader. It is not even to discuss what bad leaders do. I can only put into words what traits and qualities in Leaders that I look up to.

  • Take the time to tell me how I can improve.
  • Do not do the work for me, but advise when needed so I can learn the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.
  • Give me the tools to be successful until I have tools of my own.
  • Hold me Accountable.
  • Ask me for progress reports. Do not go behind my back when working with others on a task.
  • Give me more responsibility as I show I can handle the work.
  • When we set our goals, stick to our benchmarks.
  • Support our mission by allowing me to do my job.
  • Support me by holding others to the mission.
  • Praise is important but revealing shortcomings will make me better.
  • Be true to your words, I will be true to mine.
  • Support the line and the line will support you.
  • Good Leaders develop Great Leaders!

No matter what profession you are in, many of these traits apply. In fact many of these apply to everyday life. Very few people want to do poor work; Leaders have the ambition to empower those people to do great work.

 

 

Walking out of the firehouse I seldom feel I have done enough. “If I only had tried this, if I had only worked harder, if I only had trained more.” These are often the questions I ask myself. How will I be better tomorrow? I hold myself to a higher standard than others, but I strive to invoke them to ask the same of themselves.

My passion may be off-putting to you, but that is your burden to deal with. Satisfaction has always eluded me, I am always seeking to push myself further. Never pass on an opportunity to make yourself a better Firefighter or a better person, for that matter.

Photo from The Romance of Firefighting

 

“If the fire service is something worth belonging to, are you doing everything possible to ensure you are worthy of belonging to it?”

 

Stay passionate, stay unsatisfied, and always Keep the Faith!

AIM HIGH. FIRE RELENTLESSLY.

Set your goals. Expect challenges. Expect setbacks. Always Aim High, Then Fire Relentlessly. You will never get anywhere unless you move your own two feet.

When you were 15 or 16, did you have a pretty good understanding of your world? Think back to those days, what opinions, views, ideals have changed? What remains? Most likely your world of today is significantly different. Priorities change, most of all you have experienced more of what life has to offer. Failures and success drive your current state of equilibrium with the world. We can anticipate that 5 years from now you will be slightly different?

“We don’t want to focus on the trees (or their leaves) at the expense of the forest.”


The quote is by Dr. Douglas Hofstadter from the book I am a Strange Loop. The statement is profound, at least to me. It has so many connotations that hit home personally. Simply put, do not sweat the small stuff at the risk of missing out on the big picture. For my professional life, aka the fire service, what this means is we are public servants, who swore an oath to protect them from **insert the services you provide here**, with professionalism and respect.

Do we often spend too much of our efforts, attention, and time on the little things that do not matter to the proverbial forest that is public fire protection? The colors of, whatever…trucks, shirts, hats, numbers, etc… and the arguments, “debates” over minor details. This is the QUANDRY of the DEFEATIST. Every time the focus shifts from them to us, we are defeating our purpose.

An example that sparked this post is the current focus on Fire Behavior. It is great, we should have a focus on Fire Behavior as the foreseeable future is our primary mission, making fire behave. But what I disagree with, and I too have used the term, is MODERN. The only time we live in is the present. Fire has not changed, only the context in which it is in. The concept applies to everything, as the present only happens once. This is part of the STRANGE LOOP. We cannot have the mindset, or a defeatist attitude that our present state of knowledge is sufficient. What we know right now is all we can know for right now, and we don’t know what we don’t know. Yet, we will be back in similar situations tomorrow, but armed with new experiences of past events. While they may have happened we only have self-referencing perspective on the events that unfolded, where we were, and what we were doing. This is learning, making connections and bonding self-referencing precepts with outside influences to form the proper conclusion, as long as you allow it to happen (This is how you can vividly remember a situation, yet only had a narrow vantage point. The details from others help to fill in your own memory of events). However, the defeatist is blind on how to appropriately use these details in future situations. The Quandary of the Defeatist is the cd track stuck on loop, stuck in a black hole of the strange loop.  Then suddenly, it is as if everything has changed. The defeatist feels personally attacked as though everything they stand for is under scrutiny. Our work environment becomes hostile, and as man does, takes the low road of starting gossip, ridicule, and distrust.

There is a simple antibody, a countermeasure for the Quandary of the Defeatist, understand that we live in a loop. You will learn, then relearn or should I say adjust your understanding, on almost everything you know. Stay open minded and pay attention to what you know and attempt to see it from another perspective. You may be surprised on how much you know or do not know.

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