The past two segments of "The Duty To Lead" have covered a variety of topics, including task competence, daily attitude, and perceptions being tied to one's personal affairs. This blog entry will round out the discussion, looking into topics such as the relationship between being an officer and being an instructor, some ways to encourage constant learning on your shift, and a few closing thoughts.
This military adage certainly applies directly to our duties as fire department leaders. Simply put, you cannot reasonably expect your crew to train with any sort of consistent effort if you are not doing the same thing. There seems to be a lot of “lets go help the rookie” type training going on in the fire department these days. What I mean by this is that the newest member of the department will dress in full gear and SCBA, stretch a hoseline by himself, and the rest of the company will stand around in their station clothes in order to tell him all of the things he did wrong. Does this type of training sound familiar? More importantly, have you as the company officer led drills like this?
My first day out of the academy, I walked into the firehouse to find a covering lieutenant working. Naturally, I expected to have some sort of drill or evaluation so the crew could gauge whether or not I was proficient at the entry-level requirements of my job. Instead, what I encountered was one of the most physically taxing days of my life, as the Lieutenant ran me through practical evolutions in full gear for the majority of the shift. In fact, he was so tough on me that the other members of the crew were apologizing. To a rookie. On his FIRST DAY.
Naturally, I worked through the day in good spirits (as most rookies would), but there was a bigger lesson to be learned. The Lieutenant, despite having over 15 years of experience in the fire service, performed every single skill that he asked me to perform. When I was dressed, he was dressed. When I was wearing my SCBA, so was he. If I was putting up a 28’ extension ladder, he would put it up faster and more efficiently than I did. In fact, for every skill that I performed, he could perform just as well if not better than me. We both took a beating that day, but we both also learned valuable lessons: my officer now knew that I would never quit on him, and I knew that my officer knew his job, could physically perform it, and that he would never quit on me either.
To this day, that officer (now a Captain) continues to be one of my biggest mentors in the fire department, and is someone that I constantly turn to for advice. He is praised by the motivated firefighters and hated by the lazy and complacent ones, but one thing is consistent: his ability to lead a crew successfully into a tough fire has never been questioned, because not only does he talk a good game, but he consistently and without exception demonstrates competence and a willingness to lead from the front. Remember: if you expect your crew to do something, show them that you can do it too. They don’t want to hear about it. They want to see it. Show them.
ENCOURAGE CONSTANT LEARNING
Always remember: nobody on your fire department knows everything. Some firefighters are certainly more proficient than others, but the most proficient and well-versed firefighters never miss an opportunity to learn, regardless of who they are learning from. Make the time to read an article, register for a seminar, or practice a skill that you or your crew may not be proficient in.
It doesn’t take a lot. If you spend 15 minutes out of each shift reading an article or reviewing an SOP, you will be ahead of the curve. Just 15 minutes! Find an interesting article and talk it over with your crew. I guarantee that you will be amazed at the results. I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in hoseline deployment drills that were completely unplanned and lasted into the wee hours of the morning, simply because of a conversation that started at the kitchen table. Some of the best training sessions are the ones that are unplanned, because they occur due to a group of people being interested in a topic, instead of taking place “because the chief said we have to drill today”.
How about higher education? Many career and volunteer fire departments in this country offer some type of tuition assistance or reimbursement. Nobody is expecting you to go get your PhD while working as a fire officer, but if you don’t have a degree, start chipping away at it! Again, setting the example with your actions will help the younger members of your crew realize the value of education.
I cannot emphasize this point enough! There still seems to be a negative connotation regarding those who further their education with college, paramedic certifications, or other means. Make no mistake: for every “college kid who doesn’t know what a Philips head screwdriver is” or “EMS guy who can’t even pull a handline”, there are 5 or 10 firefighters who perform just as poorly at their jobs, but hold neither a degree nor an EMS certification. There are only two common factors between all of these non-performers: COMPLACENCY and LAZINESS. Getting a degree doesn’t erase your knowledge of how to put a fire out. Becoming a paramedic doesn’t prohibit you from throwing a 35’ ladder by yourself and jumping in a window to make a grab. It’s simple: you either can do the job or you can’t.
You must ask yourself: what kind of firefighters do you want to work for you? What kind of firefighters will you be responsible for developing? Always encourage your firefighters to take as many classes as they can, whether they are on-the-job training, seminars, or college courses. And the best way to encourage them? Show them that you believe in the value of constant learning by attending training classes yourself! Or better yet…
LEARN HOW TO TEACH
Whether you realize it or not, the job of a fire service instructor and the job of a fire officer mirror one another very closely. While I could write an entire article on this topic alone, I’ll try to keep it short. Regardless of your rank, when you are teaching a drill or presenting a lecture in front of a group of firefighters, you are acting as a fire service leader. Your ability to teach others how to perform well in our job revolves strictly around your knowledge and the ability to deliver information effectively, NOT around the amount of brass on your collar.
The value of this last objective should be clearly evident. When the time comes that you must remediate a firefighter because he or she didn’t perform satisfactorily on a fire, the ability to deliver the message with effective instruction is always preferable over delivering the message with discipline. A fire officer’s inability to instruct will not only frustrate the crew, but will frustrate the officer as well, as he or she will constantly be faced with a company that is not performing up to the standard that is expected.
Teaching is a skill that must be developed. Not all people feel natural speaking in front of a group or demonstrating a skill to their peers. It all stems back to the principle of encouraging constant learning: as an officer, you must learn how to be an effective teacher in order to help your firefighters learn how to do their jobs. It may require you to take yourself our of your “comfort zone”: teach a company drill, prepare a presentation, accept a position at your department’s training academy…whatever it takes! Again, by putting yourself out there, you will develop into a stronger instructor, which will in turn make you a highly effective fire officer.
Over the past three posts, we have covered a number of crucial traits that are common amongst the top leaders in the fire service. Regardless if you are a Chief or a rookie firefighter fresh out of the academy, take a minute and think about whether or not you represent these values on a daily basis. If not, ask yourself why! Being a good leader is not rocket science…it takes a bit of motivation, a bit of hard work, and the willingness to encourage others to work just as hard as you are. Remember…if you are a company officer, leading your crew is not simply another task…it is your duty!