June 5, 1944. General Eisenhower speaks to airborne troops preparing to board aircraft for the invasion of Normandy. An iconic image of leadership.
As supreme commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces, Eisenhower could have easily remained hidden in a command tent. Instead, he chose to spend time with some of the men he was leading. Time to speak with them face to face, to hear their concerns, and to encourage them.
True leadership can not hide behind a desk or computer screen. It demands that you be willing to stand, both face-to-face and side-by-side, with those under your command. And if you aren’t willing to act like a leader, then you shouldn’t be surprised when nobody follows you.
A little over a year ago, I had a short talk with a colleague about how we track our progress in fireground skills. When I was just a volunteer/part-timer, I realized that I simply couldn’t equal the skill acquisition of a career firefighter by training just one night a week. Even a mediocre full-timer would perform certain tasks more often through the course of 10 shifts per month. So, I started a log to record every time that I performed critical skills (stretch a line, throw a ladder, force a door, gloved mask-ups) during training or on the fireground. This helped me hold myself accountable, so that I could supplement those instances with additional repetitions on my own. The goal was to perform each skill a certain number of times every month, even if it wasn’t required during drills or calls. I continued logging reps after getting a career position. Although the need to supplement decreased, it still keeps me honest about how frequently I perform certain skills.
My colleague said that he did something similar and asked if I ever worked fireground skills into or around my workout program. For instance, practicing gloved mask-ups after completing some tough conditioning to simulate stress or cleaning ladders instead of a barbell. I told him that I occasionally worked out in gear, but that I didn’t really follow a “program”. I ran once or twice a month if I felt like it. I occasionally did push-up/pull-up circuits. Sometimes I’d do barbell work. However, there was no rhyme or reason behind it.
Later on, the hypocrisy of that statement weighed on me. “I don’t follow a workout program.” I was willing to spend so much time gathering knowledge of the trade and developing the skill necessary to apply it on the fireground. I had a binder of articles and notes from conferences. I had a notebook tallying every time I threw a ladder in the past year. Yet, I wasn’t willing to commit to a standardized program aimed at improving my physical fitness, the very attribute that would allow me to perform various physically demanding skills in quick succession and under stress.
I’ve always been a good distance runner. Endurance work is my safe space. If I decided to workout, I would almost always go for a run. I was good at running. It was easy. It was comfortable. Meanwhile, my strength was terrible and my anaerobic conditioning was only average, as I rarely pushed myself. I let the fact that I was skinny and could run far convince me that I was fit enough. I settled. Worse yet, I had a poor view of coworkers who were “out of shape”. How could I feel disdain toward others for not working to improve themselves if I wasn’t working to improve myself, as well? Rather than focusing on their shortcomings, I should have been pointing out mine. Working to be better than I was yesterday, in all aspects, and nothing more.
Last December, I changed that. I started following a standard, progressive program. I committed to three strength workouts per week and three conditioning workouts per week, regardless of my work schedule or other events. I try to get up early to fit my workout in before life’s distractions can get in the way. Sometimes I have to squeeze it in at night. Other days, I have to double-up on workouts. Either way, I get it done. I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m continually getting stronger and faster. Plus, I feel better on the job and in general.
As individual attributes; knowledge, skill, or fitness alone will only get us so far. In order to truly excel in this trade, we have to take a holistic approach. We must work to improve in all aspects of the craft, even the areas that aren’t comfortable for us. A fact that I’m still working on myself. Drive on and do good work.
Depending on the size of your department and its turnover rate, the promotional process may be a bi-annual event or a rare occurrence. Either way, positions will need to be filled at some point. The time between the announcement of an opening and its being filled can bring out odd behavior in some individuals. Even the best team-players can be tempted to undercut other candidates in an attempt to earn the coveted opening.
The ideal fireman presents the attributes of a wolf. Wolves are strong, aggressive, smart animals on their own. Yet, they hunt in packs, as a team. Each wolf plays its role in the hunt, working together to bring down their prey. Wolves know that a successful hunt as a team is also a victory for the individual, as the fallen prey will be shared to feed the entire pack.
Sharks are similar to wolves as individuals; strong, smart, aggressive. However, sharks tend to be lone predators. Their only goal in attacking prey is to satisfy their own needs. A shark’s keen senses will often lead dozens of individuals to a potential food source. This “pack” of sharks may seem similar to a group of wolves circling prey, but their mindset is much different. When the group of sharks swarms a victim, it is brutal and uncoordinated. The sharks are just as likely to eat each other as the intended prey. The individuals are concerned with nothing beyond their own survival.
Turning into a shark may seem like a sound strategy for beating out the other promotional candidates. Pointing out their mistakes and seeking to destroy their credibility. It seems easy enough to turn back to your old self once your new position is secure. However, remember that your actions, and the reputation they create, will not be so easily forgotten by your peers. What good is a shiny new set of bugles if your crew will not respect them?
Ignore the temptation to compromise your character. Successful teams breed successful individuals. Perform your job properly and seek to outperform only yourself. The rest will follow.
Mission, Team, Self.
This phrase is thrown around in the fire service more casually than stickers and challenge coins these days. I’m sure it started off innocently enough. The senior man, sipping coffee, tells a war story and shows the rookie a little trick of the trade he learned on that call. “You might not use it often, kid,” he says. “But, it’s another tool in the toolbox, right?” A tip here and a trick there. Standing on a firm foundation of the basics, these are the building blocks of a versatile, skilled fireman. Somewhere along the way, though, we lost the true meaning of this saying.
Sure, it’s great to have plenty of tricks up your sleeve and tools in your mental toolbox. However, it is becoming more common to see this phrase pop up as a retort to a critical comment about a questionable tactic. Someone points out that a more common and time-tested method will accomplish the same goal, with less complexity, and perhaps even faster. The peanut gallery quickly chimes in screaming, “It’s just another tool in the toolbox!” Absolutely, it is another tool, but should we be so quick as to toss every tool we see into that cranial box? Perhaps, we should be just a bit more discerning in our scrutiny of potential tactics.
There are options that only work in specific regional/departmental/staffing circumstances. Sometimes they work well, but just don’t make sense for your department. These examples are acceptable, but should be taken or left based on your local circumstances. A mechanic wouldn’t fill his bag with paint rollers, although they are efficient tools for their intended task.
However, when the trick peddlers are just re-packaging a more complicated version of a decades old tactic, it’s okay to shoot it down. Call it what it is. Sometimes, the method comes from someone with little experience in the field. A little real-world testing would have shown its ineffectiveness, but in a rush to make a name for themselves they skip that most important step. Often, a more experienced tradesman will comment, “We tried that 15 years ago. It didn’t work well then; I doubt it will work now.” Again, the crowd roars, “Another tool in the toolbox!” However, this response is misguided. Not every tool presented to us is worth keeping. We should be wary of picking up every free gimmick we find, lest we lose our go-to wrench in a toolbox full of dollar store multi-tools.
“One hundred years unimpeded by progress.” A cliché that we’ve all heard and chuckled at. However, it isn’t very accurate. From horse-drawn steam carts to diesel-powered engines, wooden aerials to steel, fully enclosed cabs, SCBA’s, and TIC’s. The fire service welcomes marked improvements to our trade. However, we do approach all new ideas with skepticism, and rightfully so. For every true innovation in the fire service there are five more useless gimmicks peddled by those looking for profit or notoriety.
Take the example of the Hux Bar. Like our beloved Halligan, the Hux was designed as an improvement on an existing tool. Marketed as a pry bar/hydrant wrench, it was meant to be equally useful, whether opening a plug or the front door. It was new. It was different. It was innovative. So, why doesn’t every rig in the country carry a Hux Bar? The Hux performed poorly at every task it was designed for. Sure it was different, but that didn’t make it better.
Today, many gimmick peddlers use that old fire service cliché repetitively as their main argument in support of their product. When challenged by someone with 20+ years on the job, they utter things like, “dinosaurs don’t like change” and “just like a caveman to ignore something different”. When questioned by a younger member, their rhetoric flips over. “Get a few more years in and you’ll change your mind, probie”, they shout. The doublespeak is a weak rebuttal, though.
What’s missing from this exchange is actual evidence of why this new product is better than what’s already in service. The burden of proof should not be place on time-tested methods and tools. The things that have been working will continue to work beyond the length of my career. It is up to those with new methods and tools to provide the evidence that their product is better than what is currently in use. Note that being equal in performance is not sufficient. It must show marked improvement to justify changes to budgets and policies.
A thinking firemen is a skeptical one. Question everything. Demand a “why” for every “how”. Change is not synonymous with improvement. Different is not always better.
When we first enter the fire service, motivation is easy to find. As a probie, we are well aware that we are the weak link of the team. We are at the bottom of our department’s ladder. Everyone is our superior. The urge to improve is strong. We strive to become a contributing asset to the company, rather than a liability that everyone must keep an eye on. We are constantly challenged and made uncomfortable as we are outperformed by those around us.
As we gain experience and our skills improve, we begin to rise on the ladder of seniority. New hires come in below us and we surpass the abilities of some less-motivated, senior “employees”. We begin to feel comfortable in our department’s little “bubble”. We are familiar with everyone’s abilities and how they compare to our own. We are safe and secure.
If we remain in this “bubble”, we can easily convince ourselves that we have little room for improvement. This is especially true if we are one of our department’s top performers. Slowly, the challenge to improve disappears. The drive to advance dissipates. Comfort gives way to complacency. We become stagnant.
Step outside the “security bubble” of our department and it quickly becomes apparent that we are not so great after all. There are individuals nationwide who outperform you on nearly every level. Expose yourself to new ideas and methods. Challenge yourself to match the skills of tradesmen across the country. Do your best to maintain a level of slight discomfort in your abilities; the knowledge that you may be good, but you can still be better. Spread this discomfort to those around you. Attack the status quo of mediocrity. Challenge your company and department to overcome the plague of apathy and complacency created by a comfortable existence.
Do not become stagnant. Keep moving forward. You aren’t as great as you think you are and you can always be better tomorrow.
Black Sheep Rebel Club Rule #2
If it is efficient, relatively safe, and effective; then it is the “right” method. So, the “book” only shows one way or your last class only taught you one method? That doesn’t mean it is the end-all, fix-all, works-everytime procedure. There are many “right” methods to solve fireground problems and which one is “best” depends on the circumstances. Learning many solutions to the same problem allows you to quickly adapt, overcome, and succeed when the first-choice, “best” method fails.