Misadventures in Leadership
Recruitment and retention have become a constant struggle for fire departments (and most employers) nationwide. At a time when departments are offering sign-on bonuses and actively recruiting for lateral hires from other departments, it’s surprising to see that some administrations still lead their entire department via authoritarian control. The “keep your mouth shut and just do what you’re told” mentality is sometimes warranted, but generally reserved for probationary firefighters who are still learning the ropes or a few perpetually poor performers. When applied to an entire department as a whole, it results in an immediate crash in morale and an exodus of good employees.
Servant leadership is a more effective approach that creates pride and ownership in the organization, while developing future leaders throughout the department. The administration need only instill a positive culture and citizen first mindset, like the “lines on the side of the road” and the direction it’s heading. Once the mission is understood, the administration can trust their subordinates to make sound decisions. Chiefs should push decisions as far down the chain as possible. A good rule of thumb is: if the decision won’t affect the way that you do your job, then you shouldn’t be making it. Pass the decision down to a committee of line chiefs, company officers, and firefighters. The command staff should guide them by providing insight on budget and long-term plans that they may not be aware of, but leave the choice up to them. The Chief still has final say, but if the department has a shared mindset, the committee’s decision will probably be similar to the one the Chief would’ve made anyway.
This approach has several positive side effects. Firstly, it eliminates the “them vs. us” atmosphere that plagues authoritarian departments. The line personnel made the decision, so there is no “them”, it is only “us”.
Secondly, it exposes those personnel to all of the factors involved in making the decision. This transparency and context is often missing from decisions that cause unrest in the ranks. Many administrators dislike hearing the question “why” from their subordinates. However, it is typically not a case of questioning the validity of the leader’s decision. Most often, subordinates are simply trying to understand why the leader made that decision, so that they can learn from their thought process.
Lastly, it provides subordinates with command-level decision making experience, preparing them to rise through the ranks. This is imperative, unless your command staff plans on working for 100 years. Eventually the Chief will retire, and if they’ve made every single decision for their department, then it’s unlikely that any of their subordinates will be adequately prepared to take over. A storm of disorganization and unnecessary mistakes will be left in their wake.
Shared ownership, transparency, and communication are pathways to a successful department culture. A lack of those traits, or the deliberate removal of them, will lead to low morale and high turnover. Department administrators may run their organization however they see fit as long as they’re in charge. However, departments that ascribe to the “do what you were hired to do and shut your mouth” mentality should at least add that mission statement to their job announcements. It would save good candidates the trouble of wasting years of their career at a toxic department with poor leadership, and there are plenty of good departments who would be glad to have them.
As much as we talk about being focused and into the job on duty, it is equally important to decompress off-duty.
Like most of you, the fire service is not just my job, but my chosen trade. I devote a lot of my spare time off-duty to improving my fireground performance. From attending classes, to getting extra practice dialing in skills, to focusing on physical fitness.
Becoming truly proficient in all areas of this craft requires discipline and dedication, beyond the required minimum set by the department.
However, it’s easy for the scales of work/life balance to tip over leaving us, and our families, burned out. It’s important to keep our priorities in the right order.
Take time to do things you enjoy, spend time with family and friends, get away. Do good work, on the job and off.
In talking to firefighters from across the country, I’ve run into stories of company officers who chastise or even formally discipline their firefighters for setting up drills on their own in the firehouse. Even worse, sometimes it is the senior firefighter being reprimanded for drilling with the junior member of the company. As someone who often spends time getting reps on my own, this is frustrating to hear.
If you are an officer who is guilty of this, take a second to call yourself into your office and give yourself a write up. If you forbid firefighters from masking up, throwing ladders, or stretching lines on their own because setting up training isn’t their job; you are doing nothing, but hindering the progress of your team, demoralizing them, and ruining any initiative they have to better themselves. It is a sign of weak leadership ability and you shouldn’t be surprised when your team starts to fall apart and perform poorly.
It takes hundreds of repetitions of a single skill to become proficient and reach a level of autonomy (which allows for performance under stress). It takes thousands of repetitions to reach mastery.
If your personnel want to take the time to get those reps when they have a spare moment in quarters, encourage it. Even better if the drill started as your senior firefighter grabbing the junior member off the couch to get after it. A senior member willing to motivate the junior members without your direction will go a long way in strengthening your team and take some of the load of leadership off your shoulders. The easiest team to lead is a team who motivates themselves.
Embrace the “lone wolf” putting in work on the bay floor. Encourage them, or better yet, join in. Let them lead the rest of the company through the skill. Junior members aren’t junior members forever. The earlier you give them leadership experience, the better they will serve you as a senior firefighter, and eventually company officer, down the road.
Disclaimer: For junior members, this goes for drilling on skills that you have already developed a baseline understanding of through formal training with an instructor or your officer. If you have less than five years on the job and you run across a video or article with a skill you want to try, it’s a good idea to vet it with your officer or senior firefighter first. They can make sure that it is relevant to your local operations and watch your initial performance to coach you through learning the skill for the first time. Also, it may be something new to them and the entire company or department could benefit from learning it.
The Thousand Mile Road
“Step by step walk the thousand-mile road.” – Miyamoto Musashi
The process of skill development is a thousand-mile road, from novice to competence to proficiency to expert/mastery. Without diving too deep into the subject, the more that you develop a skill, the less you have to think about actually executing it. A common example is learning to tie our shoes. Initially, we have to consciously think about putting the laces in the correct position and in the proper order. Many of us used rote memorization (“the rabbit goes around the tree”) to expedite development through this novice stage. After many repetitions, we were able to tie our laces without looking at our shoes, though we were still consciously thinking about it. Eventually though, we performed the process enough times that it became a habitual process and we could perform it without dedicating any thought to the action (autonomy), freeing our mind to process other things like carrying on a conversation. On the fireground, autonomy in performing basic skills frees our cognitive processes for more important things, like sizing up the building and fire conditions.
As we progress in our skill level, we can begin to focus on strengthening more detailed areas of performance. For example, rather than carrying ladders on a flat, level drill ground or parking lot, practice moving up and down stairs, curbs, or grassy hills. Rather than always carrying a ladder on your right shoulder, work on the left side. Without the prior repetitions to develop autonomy, these changes in surface, grade, or position will require us to refocus our cognitive processes to negotiate them. To some, this level of detail may seem like splitting hairs, but the difference between competence, proficiency, and mastery is all about the details. As our abilities improve, we must critique them on a smaller scale if we wish to further improve. Otherwise, our performance will stall into complacency.
I recorded the following videos recently while working on left side ground-to-shoulder/carries and traversing stairs. The first repetition on the ground to shoulder is a perfect example of autonomy (muscle memory) as my brain attempts to follow the strong neural pathway developed by hundreds of reps to the right shoulder. I had to take a second to reset and mentally rehearse the left side movement before properly executing it.
Understanding the psychology behind skill acquisition is key to our abilities as both instructors (knowing how beginners learn and develop new skills) and as individual firefighters (understanding how we can continue to improve our abilities beyond mere competence for the length of our career).
Get weird. Get nerdy. Get better at your job.
A quick post to break the silence on this site. A few weeks ago, firefighters in the ELAFF local area came together to raise money for a Brother fighting cancer. The benefit supper and auction involved the help and support of many individuals, groups, and businesses. I won’t go into too much detail, except to say that it was a great success and example of brotherhood, raising around $30,000. Most of the donations for the auction came from local businesses, but some of the donating companies were out-of-state fire service businesses. Despite having no real connection to the area, all of them jumped at the chance the donate and help out. I wanted to use this platform to thank them for helping.
Box Alarm Leather (website – Facebook)
Box Alarm Leather donated a custom leather radio strap. I wear a Box Alarm Leather strap and it is of exceptional quality. I doubt I will ever have the opportunity to compare it to another custom strap, though. My Box Alarm strap is so well made that I may never need another.
Fire Cam / Firevideo.net (website – Facebook)
Fire Cam donated two fire helmet cameras. (1) Fire Cam 1080 and (1) Fire Cam Mini HD. Each included a Blackjack mounting bracket and a Class 10 SD card. I have been using a Fire Cam 1080 since spring with the intent of doing a product review. I still haven’t posted a product review, but the Fire Cam crew still stepped up to help out, despite my procrastination. As a preliminary review, I would say that the cameras work exactly as advertised. They DO stand up to repeated soakings by fire hoses and pouring rain. They DO stand up to the heat of actual house fires and the extended heat of training in a concrete burn building. They DO produce excellent video footage. If you are allowed to use a helmet camera and you are looking to buy one, then this is the one to buy. They can even provide an example “Helmet Camera S.O.G.” if your department needs one. I’ll have a full post with example footage in the near future…really…I mean it.
Liberty Art Works (website – Facebook)
Liberty Art Works donated a very nice, bronze parade axe. Everyone at the auction had their eyes on it. When it came up for bid, the price shot up quickly. It ended up going for around $1000 to a group of firefighters on the same shift as the Brother for whom the benefit was for. They immediately handed the axe to him as a gift. Brotherhood.
Ride Backwards (website – Facebook)
Ride Backwards was eager to donate items for the auction. Unfortunately, I dropped the ball in the chain of communication and it was too late by the time I picked it up. I wanted to be sure to give them mention, since it was my fault alone that they were not involved. They are good people. Check them out if you aren’t familiar.
Black Helmet Apparel (website – Facebook)
Black Helmet Apparel donated some shirts. Check them out, too.
Most of the donation gathering was done locally, since most of the auction attendees were community members who weren’t as interested in fire service items. Had more out-of-state contacts been made, I’m sure more companies would have donated. There are some very generous individuals in the fire service community, especially when it comes to helping a Brother in need. Thanks again to everyone that helped out!
Just a quick post for those who don’t follow on Facebook or Twitter.
I’ll be headed up to Indy for FDIC in the morning and I wanted to post some of the various published schedules from other bloggers before I head out.
If you’re going to be there (or already are there)…
here’s the Fire Service Warrior plan for FDIC.
The First Due Tackle itinerary is here.
And the The Fire Critic’s schedule is here.
See you there.
The winner is…
I’ll email you details shortly. There were 52 entrants. Thanks everyone. Be sure to check out Box Alarm Leather. Their prices are reasonable and their work is exceptional, so there’s no reason not to order something from them anyway.
Now that the free stuff has been given away, it’s time to get back to work…
Not a lengthy post, but it involves free stuff…
I haven’t posted an article in a while and I’ve slowed down the posting on the Facebook page…and this post isn’t going to be anything extensive, either. Lately, I’ve refocused my attention into improving myself, and doing more to help improve my department (though it is already great, even “great” can be improved upon). Rest assured, I have a couple of articles in the works, but they aren’t quite ready to be posted for various reasons. When they are ready…and at least half-way worth the time it takes to read them…I will post them.
I was able to procure a prize in a recent contest. Box Alarm Leather ran a short notice give-away of a custom leather glove strap (if you aren’t familiar with their work, click the link above or below and check them out). I was the first to correctly answer the question, and therefore won the contest. However, I decided to pass the prize on to a “leather-freak”, instead. So, after receiving the o.k. from Box Alarm Leather, it is up for grabs. This contest is open to EVERYONE…including ELAFF locals. The rules are simple:
- Leave a comment on this post (e.g. “I’m in!”, “Show me the leather”, “Shut up and give me free stuff”, etc.)
- Use a VALID EMAIL ADDRESS or I won’t be able to contact you and you will not get the prize.
- Use your real name…I’m going to post it anyway, if you win, so there’s no need to hide it.
- One entry per person
- Only entries posted prior to 7pm EST will be eligible.
- Check back after 7pm EST on Friday to see if you won.
It is that simple. I will assign each unique entrant a number. I will use a random number generator to pick the winner. The winner gets to order whatever they want on the strap.
If nobody enters, then I get a shiny new glove strap. The End.
You may begin…
Pete (Lt. Lemon)
…and Here We Go.
Well, Leather-freaks…it’s time. We currently have over 1,100 Facebook followers. Adding in Twitter followers of both ELAFF-associated accounts and direct email subscribers on the blog, we reach closer to 1,400 people…maybe 1,500. No matter the exact number, we have far more followers than I ever imagined we would and the ELAFF community is growing daily. We aren’t going to beg you for “likes” and grovel for followers anymore. That isn’t what ELAFF is about, and it was beginning to get on my own nerves.
So, let’s give some stuff away, so that we can get back to the serious content of the ELAFF movement.
We are actually going to be running two contests. You all should know about the MN8 Products giveaway, so we’ll discuss the other contest first.
The “Guess the Location of ELAFF HQ” Contest
Over the past two years, ELAFF has been distributing “sound fire service ideas with a satirical twist” to an ever-growing audience. Facebook fans range from Alaska to Alabama, along with some international fans. Through all of this, we have maintained strict secrecy over the location of ELAFF HQ and our true identities. It has worked, and the blacked-out photos are fun, but we have reached the limits of what we can accomplish “undercover”. As some formerly anonymous bloggers have said, “Anonymity is overrated.” It is time to give it up. We are going public.
Of course, we can’t simply show our faces and post our names. This is ELAFF. We are still Lt. Lemon and Capt. Chaos. We’re going to have some fun with this unveiling.
This contest will be for the followers who haven’t been clued into the whereabouts of our hide-out. We are interested to see how well we’ve hidden our identities, but this means we have to set some limitations.
If you meet any of the following criteria, you will not be eligible for this contest (don’t worry, you can still win some Foxfire gear):
- If you have met either Lt. Lemon or Capt. Chaos in person. (Our memories are photographic…we remember EVERYONE.)
- If you are our friend on either of our personal FB pages.
- If you have received a Lemon Wedge in the mail. (Sorry, you’ve seen my return address…but you have a Lemon Wedge!)
- If you are relatively familiar with anyone who meets the above criteria, or we think you had an unfair advantage.
How To Enter:
Enter your name, email address, and guess of where ELAFF HQ is. You can give a vague guess, like the West Coast or the Northeast, or you can give a more detailed guess, like a state or city.
The winners will be the entrants with the three closest, and most specific, guesses.
The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd nearest guesses will win a Limited Edition Gold, Silver, and Bronze Lemon Wedge, respectively.
Capt. Chaos and I also plan on throwing in other random goodies from ELAFF HQ. There is no telling what those will consist of, but they will be worth it.
This contest will run until 9pm PST on March 2, 2012.
**If you know who we are and you let the secret out, I’ll give you a high-five to the face.**
The MN8 Products Giveaway
The contest that you’ve all been waiting for. We will randomly give away 1 Foxfire Helmet Band, 1 Foxfire tool wrap, and 1 XL Foxfire t-shirt from MN8 Products.
The only requirement for this contest is that you must “like” the ELAFF FB page and the MN8 Products FB page. The contest entry form should allow you to do this when you enter. Everyone is eligible except for Capt. Chaos and myself.
How To Enter:
Go to the ELAFF Facebook page and click the “Big Giveaway” tab on the left sidebar…or just click here.
You may enter once per day, until the contest ends.
This contest will end at 9pm PST on March 2, 2012.
There you have it…you may begin entering now.
A New Frontier
February 11th, 2012
Today marks the 2nd anniversary of the creation of the ELAFF Facebook page.
Two years ago, an inside joke at the firehouse led to the creation of Excessive Leather Accessories for Firefighters. What started out as a place to post funny videos for ELAFF locals soon became a tool to spread USEFUL posts, articles, and ideas. Somehow, random firefighters from across the nation began to stumble upon this little “gag page”, and our following began growing rapidly. My posts on Facebook began to get lengthier and last year, after much prodding, ELAFFHQ.com became a reality. Captain Chaos joined in the venture and we’ve been tweaking things ever since. We now have over 800 Facebook “likes”, along with a small amount of Twitter followers and email subscribers. Through this endeavor, we’ve had the opportunity to network with some great names in the fire service, of whom I have a tremendous amount of respect and would never have expected to come in contact with otherwise.
Lt. Lemon and Capt. Chaos at a recent mutual training event.
Alas, as the movement grows, we must grow with it.
We have a big overhaul to make here on the site, but this is ELAFF and Lt. Lemon and Capt. Chaos don’t do anything subtly.
We don’t want this big change to be simply about ELAFF. We want community involvement in our posts and ELAFF in general, so MN8 Products has stepped up and offered some awesome, glowing, Foxfire accessories to give away as part of a “blog overhaul” contest. We’ll also be offering up a few, special ELAFF prizes.
Here’s the catch…
As part of getting these freebies to give away, we have to reach a large enough audience. We’ve never begged for followers before, and we really aren’t begging now, but before we can start the contest and “overhaul” we have to reach 1,500 Facebook “likes”. This will be the one and only instance where we grovel for “likes”. I promise.
We gained nearly 200 “likes” in a 48 hour period this past week…getting less than 700 more should be no problem.
Thus begins ELAFF’s one and only “pledge drive”. We’ll have more details on the prizes, contest, and overhaul once we reach 1,500.
Share, comment, and complain away…
Thanks for reading,