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.
Solving the problems of the world has long been a favorite activity at the firehouse kitchen table. Now that we are in the “Facebook Age”, the discussions have expanded on to a national, online forum. This change has resulted in some great benefits through exposure to new ideas and methods. However, the instant and impersonal communication can also create stubborn stances and impolite responses that would likely be avoided in a face-to-face encounter.
Social media discussions allow one to reply instantly, but anonymously, and without the accountability found during direct conversations. The most obvious consequence of this is the decline or lack of manners between participants. In addition, internet arguers often become staunch and immovable supporters of their positions. The comfort of remote debates makes it too easy for one to dismiss all differing ideas without any consideration. A discussion over the use of radio straps versus a radio pocket turns into a repetitive chorus chanting, “I’m right; you’re wrong!” The most zealous will go beyond just disagreeing and declare all differing methods to be idiotic or deadly. Threads spool on for dozens, or hundreds, of comments with proponents of all sides screaming, “Your way will get you killed!” like two walls talking to each other. The truth of the matter is that ANY way will get you killed if you are unfamiliar with it.
The benefit of the online forum is that we can hear these new ideas, push back from the desk for a minute, and physically try them for ourselves. Rather than arguing perpetually, put the method in question to a real life test. By setting aside your preconceived notions, you might learn something new, or you may just prove your point. Either way, you will accomplish more than if you had continued to angrily slap your keyboard. Regardless of the outcome, remember that just because a method doesn’t work for you and your department, it doesn’t mean that it is automatically a “death trap”. You must accept that it may work very well for another department with different staffing, different equipment, or a different mindset.
In the end, we must often learn to just agree to disagree. Whether you like it or not, there is “more than one way to skin a giraffe”(and some of the best methods aren’t listed in the “red book”). Perhaps it would be best to limit our Facebook activity to clicking “like” and “share”. Leave the big debates to the tailboard, the kitchen table, or a bar in Indianapolis. The next time you find yourself sucked into the vortex of misunderstanding and hate that is a Facebook debate, have an open mind and remember the words of the Dude, “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
It’s been a while since I wrote a legitimate article here. I’ve been focusing more on self-improvement and handling local business and have slightly neglected this site. Those of you that follow ELAFF on Facebook know that I continue to share the good works of other minds on a regular basis, and that’s the point. There are an overwhelming number of brilliant minds writing and teaching in the fire service today. With this in mind, I raised the level of scrutiny regarding what I deemed worth posting for the world to see. I’ve never even written a “training” article, anyway. I’ve simply scribbled down the random musings and odd opinions of my mind. Rest assured, I will continue to write, however it may not always be hosted here and I can’t guarantee the frequency.
So with that in mind, I’d like to try something new here…by ADDING to the many voices out there. Sort of hypocritical, but stick with me.
I will be posting a guest post from a Local in the near future. He sent me a draft to look over and I told him that I would just post whatever he wanted to say right here on ELAFFHQ.com. So, perhaps YOU have a few words to say, but you don’t want to create “Fire Blog #1,957,372” just for a single post. Maybe you’d like to rant about transitional ventilation, the 7-9-8 attack line, or retail packaging that’s too hard to open. Maybe you have some witty satire piece that will leave sarcasm-blind readers in a stupor. Maybe you have a piece of motivational messaging that you’d like to share, or some pseudo-hipster slam poetry on budget cuts and plastic helmets. One paragraph or 10, 200 words or 2,000, it doesn’t matter. I’ll take it if you meet the requirements:
- You must include your real name, and preferably an email address, too. You may write whatever you want, but you’ll have to stand by it when the wolves come running…or the adoring fans, whichever.
- I reserve the right to omit submissions as I please, for any and all reasons. I may also refer to various colleagues for their opinion on your submission prior to posting. The standards won’t be too stringent, though.
- Despite the context of #2, I do not have to AGREE with what you write. I asked Matt to write whatever he wanted as Captain Chaos, regardless of my opinion. In fact, I don’t even completely agree with everything that I’ve previously written. Still, my previous posts remain accessible, as will your future posts.
This may become a forum for the fire service “everyman” to share his thoughts. Then again, it may deteriorate into an utter mess of chaotic chest-thumping, the likes of which has never been seen…not even in the comments section of Statter911.com (in which case I will delete everything and we will pretend that this never happened.) Maybe nobody will submit anything. We shall see…
Let the madness ensue…
Send submissions to email@example.com with the subject “Post Submission”.
“Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.”
These words caught my eye in a recent blog post, one of a few which struck me deeply in the past 24 hours, stirring a period of serious reflection. Reflection on myself, my ideas, my actions, and my writing. Reflection on this site and ELAFF as a whole. It has been nearly one year since I moved the ELAFF movement to this standalone site. I used to hesitate to call it a “blog”, as I tried to steer away from the personal posts commonly associated with that term. This was due in part to the anonymous nature of the posts, but it was also an attempt to maintain the universal, ambiguous nature of the topics which any agency or individual could relate to. As you well know, the anonymity is no more. So, the occasional “personal” post can be expected…and this is the first. Stay with me, though. I might stumble on something of use to you.
The removal of the “anonymous” barrier brought a question to my mind. If he isn’t the mythical “Fire God”, who hand-carves door chocks out of oak trees using his Leatherman multi-tool, then who IS Lt. Lemon? Who AM I? I found that it was much easier to answer the inverse question. Who am I NOT?
I am not anyone special. I am not an expert. I am not an instructor, trainer, teacher, nor professor. I am not a philosopher. I am not the definitive voice of reason on all or any topics.
Who am I? I am a guy with a keyboard and an interest in stringing words together into sentences. That’s all any of us(bloggers/writers) are. I am simply sharing opinions and ideas, not undebatable facts. So, how does this relate to you?
This serves as a simple reminder to take everything with a grain of salt. Don’t automatically believe anything you read online or see on t.v. This is not a training site, but a forum for discussion. Read critically and question the material presented. If you disagree, feel free to rebut with your own opinion. If you agree, add your own thoughts to the discussion. I never fully cover any subject which I write on and there is always room to elaborate. I’m sure most other fire service writers would ask that you do the same and I am striving to become more involved in the posts which influence me.
My status as a member of this forum, rather than a teacher, affects me even more. This site isn’t really about spreading my ideas, but more about gathering the ideas of others. ELAFF has allowed me to network with firemen from beyond the county, state, and regional boundaries which usually inhibit growth in the fire service. It exposes me to varying ideas, tactics, theories, and equipment which I might have missed if I remained isolated within the comfort of my home department.
Some don’t realize the potential of these differing ideas and tactics. They immediately jump to bash and scrutinize others for their differences, falsely perceived to be mistakes. They react with the same fear as the townspeople to Frankenstein’s monster. Frankenstein’s “turtleshell” wearing, fireground sprinting, roof cutting monster. However, they are not fearful of the literal differences which they see, but of the theoretical change which those ideas could bring to their department. Oh, “change”. That double-edged sword that we’re all SO scared of..even positive change(a.k.a IMPROVEMENT). Perhaps what scares us most about improvement is that , in order to improve, we must expose our weaknesses. Admitting the need for improvement is admitting that you are doing something wrong or, at the least, not as well as you potentially could.
I try to take a different approach to these “differences”. I’m intrigued by them. I see them as a chance to learn, grow, and improve…and that’s a good thing. Obviously, new tactics must be evaluated, just like online articles. Will it be useful in OUR first due? If not, can we modify it until it IS useful? In this same manner, we should also evaluate our CURRENT tactics, ideas, and equipment to see if there’s a need for improvement.
This is the benefit of the site, and the network it provides, for me. A chance to discover new ideas and re-evaluate my current ones. I get more out of this experience than any of the readers will…and that’s the point. This is an experiment in self-improvement. The cycle of discovery, evaluation, and improvement is both humbling and enlightening. Expanding my knowledge, while shrinking my personal pride.
As much as I enjoy the satire of ELAFF’s roots, I require more accountability in my material. I long wrote as “Lt. Lemon”. Since the “Big Reveal” I’ve simply added my first name, in parentheses, clinging to that alter-ego. However, it’s time to separate that persona from myself and set it on the back-burner. I’m Pete Sulzer…this is my “blog”…and these are my words. Thanks for reading them.
-Pete Sulzer (Lt. Lemon)
I was driven to write this after reading a number of articles, namely the following:
Go read them now…