Chief Ron Kanterman
I have a re-visiting guest blogger this month. My good friend and associate Captain Rob Beattie of the North Plainfield (NJ) Fire Department has returned, infiltrated my Journal and penned an amusing analogy of team work and the firehouse coffee pot. Show this to your probies/rookies/new guys and where applicable, your old guys. Thanks Rob for your insight. I enjoyed this one! Ronnie K
Fighting fire is a team activity. At a fire scene multiple companies will conduct multiple tasks toward the common goal. No one is working alone. Freelancing is dangerous and “that guy” is quickly identified and corrected. Call it what you will; company, unit, group, platoon, shift, these are a collection of members who are stronger, more effective and more efficient when they are working together. We train together, practice together and build each other up to be the best in the firehouse; TOGETHER.
We are taught this philosophy from the day we enter the fire service and ever after. It is introduced in training school and demonstrated in those early hands-on evolutions; the buddy system, two man searches, backing up the nozzle man, two man ladder carries and raises. Even in the world of emergency medical care we work with partners. On scene, every member has a specific task to get the whole job done. Nobody does it alone. But, I’m afraid we are struggling to be consistent with our new members in the firehouse. We need to reach them when we are not on emergency runs, training or learning and appreciating our great history and steep traditions which we guard with all of our pride. It isn’t their fault entirely as they have been conditioned to it all of their lives. No winner, no loser, everyone gets a trophy and the spirit of competition is quelled into political correctness.
My 12 year old son plays hockey. He just started a couple of seasons ago on roller blades and is now learning his skills on ice. It is an aggressive sport but even I cringe when his temper rises and a stick is slammed; worried that he’ll be labeled as a “goon.” More than once I have heard an opposing coach ask the referee to “keep an eye on him.” It is part of the game and I know it he is not being malicious. He, and the kids like him are passionate and engaged in the competition and are challenging themselves and each other. He will ache with disappointment after a loss or a missed play far longer than he will bask in the success of a win, goal or an assist. I fear the other coach and some of the spectators have forgotten what competition looks and sounds like. Do we want 12 year old hockey players saying “excuse me, may I have the puck now?” My responsibility is to channel that energy and develop him into a good player, a good teammate and a leader on and off the rink. I tell him it isn’t about him; it is about the team and respecting the game.
If you have a kid like mine in your firehouse who is passionate, engaged and determined, I would suggest you embrace him/her. Don’t label them as know-it-alls or dismiss what they suggest simply because they don’t have your experience. In training let them try and if they falter you should call them on it and set them straight. If they succeed you have to let them know. We cannot simply let their successes and the infractions go; we must give them both their due. In today’s world outside of the fire service, everyone gets a turn. Going first isn’t important and there is no reward for taking initiative. We are not all natural self-starters. We must encourage our young members to be aggressive while working with the team’s objective in mind. They must build each other up. We cannot let them wait for someone to say “Would you like the nozzle this time?” We would prefer they say “Let me take the nozzle this time, I will not let us down.”
We don’t want robots who simply fall in line, do what they are programed to and nothing more. Being an individual with personality is to be commended. Strong convictions, outside the box thinking, and challenging yourself and each other to be better is exactly what we need. These characteristics must be harnessed and focused on the team’s objectives and core values. I couldn’t imagine working in my firehouse without the strong and diverse personalities that keep the job fun, challenging and rewarding.
The firehouse has to have the same team feeling as being on the fire scene. It will be a struggle because of the world of individuality we live in. I’ll offer an analogy I tripped upon just this morning as I was waiting for my relief. In our kitchen we have a coffee maker that has been there for at least 20 years, not unlike any other firehouse in the country or the world I suppose. As a new firefighter, it became my responsibility to make a pot of coffee in the morning before the relief came in. Before me, there was another new guy who had that job. It was handed down to me without any fanfare. My initial response was “That’s ok, you can do it, and besides I don’t drink coffee.” I was the new guy and I had to be set straight. The senior firefighter on my Platoon decided to intervene; it wasn’t particularly eloquent but I certainly got the message. I put it in the back of my mind, accepted the responsibility and in a short period of time began to perform the task with a great deal of pride. Everyone sat down at the table and had a cup of coffee and nobody said “no.” Over time I figured out that it isn’t as much about drinking the coffee, as it is about making coffee for everyone. It is about putting the wants, needs and traditions of the group above my own. It was about doing my part, filling my role and carving my own niche into our group. In other cultures, this may be achieved through rituals and hazing but we know that is not constructive and cannot be tolerated. In the firehouse it is a simple pot of coffee. A pot of coffee everyone shares and drinks from. With that coffee and a group of firefighters sitting at the table in the morning at the end of a tour, there isn’t a problem in the world that can’t be solved. We are surrounded by a world that serves individuals. We are plugged into iPods, tablets and lap tops for work and entertainment. You no longer have to wait for the senior guy to be done with the sports section; you can just read it on your smart phone. Chief (ret.) Alan Brunacini recently wrote “we are all connected very well electronically but we are all disconnected emotionally.” Boy is he ever right about that.
It is our responsibility as the leaders in the firehouse, formal and informal alike, to bring that team mentality off of the fire ground and back to the firehouse. Aren’t we in quarters a lot more than we are not? We have to establish the playbook by practicing the little things. The details, the respect for seniority and rank and most importantly, the needs of the group above our own must be emphasized. As an old Trekki, I quote First Officer Mr. Spock who said “the good of the many outweigh the good of the few.” Show them we succeed and fail as a team and failure is not an option.
While the coffee pot is still in our kitchen, a “single cup” has recently shown up. Self-serving and individual, this marvelous machine will make you one perfect cup of coffee. If you have one in your firehouse kitchen, and before you press that button, I’d like you to ask yourself; what about everyone else?
Take care, be safe, and take pride in what we do
Rob Beattie, NPFD