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I went to a retirement activity the other day.  It was for a 42-year veteran Deputy Chief that was greatly admired in this area and beyond.  I had the opportunity to work directly for, and with, this individual for almost five years.  We had spent 25+ years in the same department (he was already a captain when I was hired), but my last five were spent directly reporting to him.  These kinds of retirement affairs (and they're increasing in their frequency for me) always cause me to reflect back upon my career, and particularly some of the people I worked with.  At this particular event I saw many I had worked with way back when.

Relative this particular guy, he is one of the very few folks I ever worked with that I  considered a mentor.  It was the nature of his personality, and was reflected by the great number of people who spoke at this event.  His personal mission, as demonstrated by his actions, was to share everything he knew in order to keep "the troops" safe and to carry out the fire department mission.  I felt lucky to spend the time closely working with him.  Even at my seniority/experience level, I learned stuff because he shared.  In addition, he also listened and let me share what I brought, and the exchange was a positive one.  He was a good and supportive boss, providing direction where needed, and letting me go the rest of the time.  I got the better end of the deal, taking much more away than I had to give.  Score!

An odd thing was that some seemed to hate this guy, while others (such as myself) thought very highly of him.  Prior to working with him closely, I knew what I heard.  Like all of us in the fire service, we loves to gossip.  "I heard...." is a communication strategy somehow ingrained into our brains from our first days.  I was a recruit training officer, worked in training for years, and yet I don't remember when or how we managed to implant this practice.  A powerful, and sometimes very destructive, part of our culture.  We speak to new recruits about reputations, and the reality of our typical advice is probably measurable as true, if we could figure out a way to do that measurement.  Developing a reputation, particularly a bad one, is easy.  This can take years to overcome, and your co-workers never fail to bring up some long-forgotten incident that got you a rep.  Sometimes because one acts like a j******, and sometimes because of circumstance, and sometimes just 'cuz.  The other side, is that with a pretty simple approach, a good reputation is attainable as well.  Work hard, accept responsibility, learn and share, respect the task, support the team, open mouth rarely when new, think when opening mouth as time passes, have a sense of humor, take the job seriously, yourself not so much.  A goofy offshoot is that because of, or sometimes in spite of, what you actually do or say, some kind of reputation emerges.

I tried to analyze the dislike phenomenon regarding one of my favorite leaders.  Of course, as one of the OG type firefighters, he had/has personality.  Gruff and profane with an actual heart of gold, who doesn't like that?  As someone at the retirement event said, even as a company officer, and battalion chief, he was/is a "firefighter's firefighter".  To me, that's an awesome compliment.  Also, as described, he loved to share:  war stories, lessons learned, little bits of crazy and seemingly unrelated information that could always come in useful somewhere including how to treat people the right way.  He has the time and the experiences to back it all up.  This usually came as a stream-of-consciousness release of many, many words.  Here's where I finally figured the rub was.

  There were some, especially at the chief officer rank, that thought there was no more they had to learn, nothing new to gain.  The secret handshake, the gold badge and white hat, automatically topped off the mental tank.  Anyone who cared to share either what they did already know, or the nuggets of good information, or a new approach, was somehow devaluing all of the brilliance they had.  This was because they had gotten their promotion and obviously owned the wisdom of the ages.  Just ask them.  Disrespect for their giant intellect by telling them anything was strictly forbidden.  This is not only owned by chief officers, but it does exist there as described.  A little careful observation revealed to me that this information dump wasn't from a place of "see how smart I am, and you're not".  More like:  "here's a bunch of stuff, some of it (OK, most of it) is great, it's yours, just let me tell you about the time...". 

One could see how the delivery could have been the factor.  We're all "personalities".  We mesh with some, dislike others.  Relative my own experience, once I looked at it that way, paid attention, and removed what I had "heard" from the calculation, I felt like I was getting something of great value.  The intent was not to make me feel or look stupid, but because he wanted to share, and be sure I knew all I needed to know to be safe, and to make others safe. What I "heard" didn't match up with what I discovered as real, ignoring the negative branch of the grapevine.

Aside from my great feelings for this individual, and further commentary on how we sometimes eat our own, my core reflection was on what we all have acknowledged what's happening to the fire service.  We are continually losing those who have the fire experience and institutional knowledge.  We all know that prevention is the best life-saver, and the frequency of fires is reflecting success in that area.  Fewer fires.  Our expectations as a profession have certainly expanded, so we're not strictly fire departments any more.  The fire/rescue/medical/hazmat/emergency/everything else department is the go-to organization for - everything.  Those of us that provide EMS as part of our departmental mission, see it as 80% or more of our calls for service.  Not to mention haz-mat, mass-casualty police actions, public ed., public health care, 12-lead ECG, electronic reporting, etc. etc. etc.  And those (I guess I'm in there) old-timers are leaving and taking much of their knowledge with them to retirement.  Their knowledge includes much of the newer areas of expertise, because it didn't just all appear in the last week.  But the lower and lower frequency events (fires) continue to happen.  And the risk is just as high.  That's because the true three causes of fire still exist:  men, women and children.  We're losing the folks who saw plenty of fires in their early career, and survived to tell what they saw and did.

Taking that all a step further, we're still not good at the future development of new leaders - aka succession planning.  While the retirement of that individual will not let him stop (for awhile, at least) from continuing to share when and where possible, we continue to lose valuable information.  And not only in the area of fires, but in leadership and relationships.  How can we make the most of this stuff?  Not everyone is willing or able to talk on and on, or ramble incoherently in a blog, to share some of the knowledge gained over the years.  Another seeming but deceptive barrier is the "new" generation.  The old war-horses are not always that great at passing it all along.  Many were taught by folks who never gave a thought to any strategy to make the future better.  More like shut up, do it like I tell you, and you'll survive.  If not, transfer somewhere else.  That was somewhat effective in a simpler time, with a simpler mission and a rational society.  Those of us who have been around for decades need to tailor our delivery for our current audience, and pass along the 411, and taking into account where they came from.  But the current and future leaders need to do their part and seek some of it  out.  It turns out its' a two-way street.  I'm more than willing to introduce a power tool to a person who has never seen one up close.  I don't think any less of them because of that, this is how, when and where they grew up.  Given the desire, it's a learnable skill, like anything else.  Just requires the commitment and the effort - the need for those things has never changed.  The up and comers need to make the adjustment in the other direction.  Look past the "old days" mentality, and glean the useable stuff.  Working under pressure, in high-risk situations is not new.  Doing it well, and safely, was probably done in a somewhat similar fashion in the 1800's.  The technology changed, but not the need for the engagement of working brains inside of tough people.  The old-timer in 1895 probably felt those young'uns had no idea either.  "Back in my day, sonny, we didn't use horses, we were TOUGH..."

We need to capture and somehow do something good with our valuable institutional knowledge that is rapidly leaving.  Like all the other things we need to do (respond to emergencies, write emails, attend classes), it's something we can't ignore.  Seek it out and share it, put it into the mix, and make now and the future better, safer.  Learn or teach from the successes and mistakes from the past.  Re-learning the same old lessons the "hard way" isn't workable in the complex world that the fire service exists in today.  There's plenty of tradition and people-skills from back in the day that are still relevant.  We can't afford to lose those things because 20, 25 or 30 years has gone by, and the old guys are leaving.  Taking a 12-lead ECG, wirelessly transmitting it directly to the hospital, and measuring the CO2 content of a patient's blood is today's ordinary treatment mode.  Treating that person well, helping your partner execute those tasks, laugh or cry about the outcome back at the station - that stuff is the way we've always done it, and those are the things that should continue, those are the things we need to pass along and nurture. 

Not that the current leaders are bad, quite the contrary.  I'm working with a few that I'm proud to know, and their effort and commitment is amazing.  What's kind of troubling is that a few of them seem so much smarter than I ever was...  Those of us on the way out need to give them what we know, and pay attention what they bring to us - there's always room for improvement, even if incremental.  Mix it all up so the current probys can complain about their newcomers when the time comes, but have a positive model to teach them what they need to know along the way.  Incorporating the old with the new.  The way my accidental mentor did it for me.

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Comment by scott munstermann on June 4, 2015 at 7:47pm

I couldn't agree with you more Chief. What a truly great mentor and friend!

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