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Who is walking your halls?
By: Chad Hoefle
choefle@es-il.org
As many of you do on a daily basis, you walk the halls of the firehouse. You may be doing chores, giving tours, answering the door, or even just stopping in with your kids on your day off. Maybe it’s that you are a volunteer or a paid on call member and you are stopping by to see if there have been any calls in the past day or so. No matter why you are walking the firehouse, unless you take a moment to stop and think, you are probably not picking up on some very important things.
If you are anything like me, you can stop at any point in the station, plant your feet, and think back to a conversation you have had with someone in that very spot. This may have been a conversation about a call you had just responded to, dinner ideas, or what you had just been called into the Captain’s office for. No matter what the conversation is that you remember, it stuck with you for a reason.
At any given moment, you are standing in the exact spot in your firehouse where a memory exists for someone. In the fire service we talk a lot about the kitchen table. The kitchen table is where arguably the majority of problems get solved and fires go out. How many people have sat in that exact seat you are in and had a conversation over a cup of insanely strong coffee? How many people have described the most horrific things they have seen all the way to the happiest moment of their lives sitting right there in that seat?
Now your firehouse may be 5 years old and it could be 100 years old but what you need to remember is today you can create one of those moments for someone. You can be the reason that someone stops in the hallway and remembers back to this day. Some days I often feel as I walk through the hallways that I am pushing my way through the crowds of people that came here before me. If I listen real hard I can hear the conversations, the arguments, the laughter, the stories, the advice and the memories being made. I want to have the members of my department stop at a random place and remember what conversations I have had with them in the hallway or at the table. I want to have that be a positive mark they can leave on the members they will encounter in their years to come.
Think back to the day your station was built or the day they moved all the stuff in.. a day before getting computers up and running was the most important thing to have done. Think about the pride that went into building this place where problems would be solved. How about the first time you walked through those doors? This was not just another building for you.. it was a calling that you were excited about. You were walking into a place where the hallways were filled with conversations already had. You were examining every room, opening doors to offices, training rooms, board rooms, and kitchens. You were walking in on years of training talks and emotional times. Now, it’s up to you to find out what was said in those conversations. I am not saying we need to pry into people’s personal business, but we need to make sure that we find out what makes our department different. There is a saying “same circus different clowns”. I agree all departments have a lot of the same issues. The fire service in general has a lot of the same good qualities as well as those things we are working on, but what makes your hallways different? What sets apart your tailboards or kitchen table from all the other ones in this country?
We are living a time in this fire service where training is taking on new levels, where fact is taking on opinion, and where people feel change is challenging tradition. We have to walk our hallways, stop and listen to the men and women who came before us. We need to listen to their stories and their stuggles to see that ours may not be so bad. We need to learn that this isn’t the first time the fire service has had to deal with change. We need to remember that guy that we wish wouldn’t show up for work used to be our best friend. Can we listen long enough to hear what’s being said, remember the feeling we had when we were having conversations and use that in a positive way? What about the conversations had before your time? If you are anything like me, you find great pleasure in sitting with the men that were on your department in the “old days”.
When I first became the Chief at my department, I invited about 10 of the retired members from our department to the firehouse. It was a formal letter that said they were invited for coffee and doughnuts for what I was calling “tailboard talk”. I remember my feeling that day. Who was going to show up? What were they going to think? Either way, I knew I had said there were doughnuts so someone was going to be there! I had prepared a PowerPoint of pictures I had found from years back. Some were calls, some were old station pictures showing old uniforms, patches, and members that had come and gone. I went to the parking lot with coffee in hand and waited for the men to show up. One by one they rolled in as I asked, “How we doing this morning?”. What I got was, “I’m not sure yet, I’m not sure why I am here”. After hanging up coats and canes, I gathered 5 guys into a room around a table and explained who I was if they didn’t know and what I was trying to do. At the time I really didn’t know what I was trying to do or what I was going to get, so I started with a picture or the members of the department from long before I was even thought of. Some of the men were in this picture, some were not, but I did hear about each one of the men in the picture. I heard everything from how a dent got into one of the rigs to how our previous Chief and his brother used to get into all kinds of trouble when they were younger. Picture after picture I hear more stories. I could tell some of these pictures bothered a few of the men, and some got them all excited. I even was able to start an argument about why the old pumper was designed the way it was. At one point two of us laughed so hard we had tears coming out of our eyes and I think it was at the expense of another guy in the room, but to us it didn’t matter because it was real. I could see these men reliving their years on the department. I learned so much about where we came from. After about three hours and explaining where the restroom was several times, we decided to call it a day. We decided we would come back and do this again, and we have. Something has changed though. One of the men has passed away. I had recorded the first time we all got together that day on my digital recorder so I can sit at my desk and listen to it. I hear his voice and think about all the stories I didn’t hear. What more could I have learned? I will never have the opportunity to listen to the conversations he had.
Don’t waste time. Ask questions, seek information. What was training like at YOUR department 20 years ago? How were issues handled? What has changed and WHY? Think about who is walking your halls, laugh with them, cry with them, learn from them and teach the ones to come.

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