By Harry Carter
The future of the fire service is at stake. There are those who are trying to move into the future using of “book knowledge.” They have no concern for the things their fire department folks have learned over the years. For some people, if it isn’t in the book, it isn’t worth knowing. Do you know a person like that? Does that approach even sound right?
I have been around for quite some time now. I first started responding to emergencies in 1964. It has been my privilege to ride on fire trucks as well as ambulances. It has been my good fortune to have worked with some really great leaders. As you might imagine, it has also been my lot to work with some leaders whose skills as leaders were nonexistent.
Fortunately, my late father taught me that it is important to keep good notes and to save anything that might help you in the future. Good, bad, or indifferent, I have kept my notes over the years. That could explain why my office looks as though I learned to keep house from the famous Collier Brothers of New York City fame. Although my office is jam-packed with books, records, and reports, I can still pretty much find all that I need to get my job done as an observer of the fire service world.
Therefore, it is with a great deal of concern that I relate my thoughts in this article. I believe that there is a serious problem brewing in our beloved fire service. It seems as if some people in the fire service are beginning to view older members of the department as people who lack wisdom instead of as treasure troves of knowledge that should be shared and celebrated. Veteran folks, who should be pivotal members of an organization’s knowledge base, are being kicked to the curb by younger people who claim to know “it all.” They do not recognize the value of tacit knowledge–the learned experiences each of us gathers as we move through our careers.
Strive for a Middle Ground
I have decided to share my thoughts about veteran members with you. I put out a Tweet on my thoughts about teaching and training the next generation. My Tweet was simple, “We cannot expect our younger members to suddenly know what they need to know. We must share with them what we have learned over the years.”
Because of the limitations imposed by Twitter, I had not fully expressed my thoughts. With this in mind, I sent out a second Tweet, “When I say ‘share,’ I mean just that. Share; don’t dictate, demand, or force feed. Find out what they do know and build upon that.”
The responses to my two comments came flying in. They seemed to split into a couple of schools of thought. There were those who said that the younger generation was causing the problem. Others blamed the whole situation on the older members of our fire departments who, these respondents said, have refused to embrace the younger members of their organization and welcome them into a leadership role within their departments.
Since I have seen glaring examples of both, I suggest that there has to be a middle ground for which we all should strive. One of life’s lessons for me is that when one side wins a knockdown, drag-out battle, the other side loses. This is never a good situation. Some hard feelings go on for generations. I know of a couple of fire departments that are still fighting the battles of the year 1915 when someone urinated on someone’s Cream of Wheat and a number of people stomped off and started their own fire company.
It is hard for some people to realize that their time in a leadership role within an organization must come to an end. They hang on angering people to the left and to the right until the local undertaker carts them off to their final resting place. That is not the way I want people to remember my life and my time in the fire service.
My life has been a series of adventures wherein I rose up through an organization, led that group, and then stepped aside for my successor. I am at an age when I now consider that I may have stepped up to the plate once too often. It is time for me to cheer on the next generation and share my wisdom with them when appropriate.
Some veterans will never share what they know. They hoard the wisdom and use it as a club to beat the younger people into submission. They refuse to step aside and let the next generation step up and begin to take charge. I have seen some really fine organizations go off the deep end because the older members of the group were unwilling to welcome, nurture, and help their new members grow into productive members of the group.
In such a situation, one of two things will happen. People will get tired of being treated that way and will vote with their feet. This is the normal course of events. People will not stay where they feel unwanted by their peers.
Another scenario that could play out is that the younger members bide their time until enough new people come onboard to create a solid voting block for the youth group. The younger members will then treat the older members as they have been treated in an effort to return the favor and run them off. Neither of these two ways of operating is god for the health of an organization.
In far too many instances, I have witnessed a number of younger members of the fire service ignore the wisdom of a veteran member of their department just because he was a veteran member. It seems to me that these younger folks see their trip through the fire academy’s firefighter I course supplemented by a visit to a fire officer training course as the be-all and end-all of their trip through the world of fire service knowledge.
There is a distinct difference between Explicit Knowledge and Tacit Knowledge. Unfortunately, this distinction is not often made in our fire service training programs. I have seen instructors stick to the book and test their troops on the book. Although this may be the requirement in your state, I assure you that I have never extinguished a fire by tossing a book or some knowledge at the flames. Knowledge is necessary, but so is experience. These two components must be blended for the best results.
Explicit knowledge is gathered, articulated, codified, and stored in certain media (an example would be London is in the United Kingdom). It can be readily transmitted to others. The information contained in course handouts, encyclopedias, and textbooks are examples. People for whom explicit knowledge is the be-all and end-all of their exposure to knowledge place no value on the experience of people who have been performing a series of tasks for an extended period of time.
Tacit knowledge (as opposed to formal, codified or explicit knowledge) is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it. Examples include speaking a language, using algebra, or designing and using complex equipment. These skills necessitate knowledge that is not always known explicitly, even by expert practitioners; they are difficult or impossible to explicitly transfer to other users. Tacit knowledge has far-reaching consequences and is not widely understood.
Sharing Tacit Knowledge
How, then, do we pass along this hard-won knowledge that lies solely within the heads of the people who possess it? The answer is simple and then again not so simple. Implementation depends on the willingness of a fire department to recognize the need to establish an official, department-sponsored mentoring program. A great deal of the necessary knowledge that must be shared with our next generation is within the brains of the veteran members of your fire department who have lived it and learned it.
Over the years I have served as a fire apparatus driver in a number of fire departments. I completed the driver’s training program at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1967. It covered the basics of how to drive and operate all of the air crash and structural apparatus in use at the time. The books I read and the lectures I attended provided me with the basic skills needed to drive and operate the equipment.
I had a basic set of skills, but that was not all I needed. My skills improved over time through the continued operation of the apparatus under the guidance of more senior personnel, who rounded off the rough edges of my performance as they saw me at work. I hesitate to use the words “trial and error” because those words fail to describe the interaction between the senior people and me.
The advice and knowledge they shared with me allowed me to improve as a pump operator and crash truck driver/operator. The same held true when I was made a driver in the Adelphia, Rahway, and Newark (NJ) fire departments. I had the privilege to have as my best friend the late Jack Peltier, one of the greatest pump operation teachers in the world. He shared his decades of experience with me. He mentored me and made me a better pump operator. He also taught me a great deal about the importance of using common sense in the fire service.
I experienced the invaluable benefit (you may consider it eerie) of his mentoring one day on the fireground. It was as though Jack was looking down from heaven offering me advice on how to operate our Adelphia pumper at a serious fire in our district. At the height of the fire, I was feeding two 1¾-inch handlines, a 2½-inch handline with a solid bore tip, and a five-inch large-diameter hose feed to the tower ladder operating on our side of the fire. I was continually monitoring the pump pressure, gating down or opening up the lines as the situation dictated. It really came to the fore when I noted that the five-inch line feeding me from the hydrant was beginning to collapse. As you know, you can’t draft off a hydrant. I believe it was Jack who was whispering to me, “Gate them down, but give them all some water.”
On a sunny day in June 2014, the collective wisdom of 47 years of driving, pump operations, drills, classroom sessions, mentoring, and advice were brought to bear on the situation facing us at that fire. No one was injured. No one lost water. And the fire was extinguished. I offer this story as an example of the need for our fire departments to share our tacit knowledge through a program of mentoring and support.
There is no room in the 21st century for the “we’ve always done it that way” warriors. The way we have always done things may have been the wrong way. We need to be honest with ourselves. We need to continually review our operational procedures to ensure that we are operating in accordance with the latest research in our field. Thanks to the wealth of research now being provided to us, we are being offered a whole new range of ways in which to operate. We would be fools to ignore it.
I offer these suggestions:
· Old-timers: You aren’t going to live forever. The time to select and train your replacement is now. Share what you have learned.
· Young folks: Grey hair does not equate with ignorance. Listen to the veterans.
· Younger troops: With any luck, you will get to be old someday and be younger firefighters will be chomping on your backside.
· All members: Learn to play well together.
The future is right out there in the next tomorrow you will face. The future of the fire service and your fire department depend on your ability to share and learn as a team. I urge each of you to push your fire department to create a mentoring program. Partner each new member with a veteran who wants to be a mentor. If your department agrees, fine; if not, do not that let that stop you from reaching out to a senior member for help and assistance. Senior members, find that young person who needs your help and give it to him. Mentor or lose; sharing and caring are so important.
Harry R. Carter is chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners for Howell Township (NJ) Fire District #2. He had a 26-year career with the Newark (NJ) Fire Department. He has also had a 39-year career with the Adelphia Fire Company in Howell Township, serving as chief in 1991; he serves as company chaplain and is an active life member. He has a doctor of philosophy degree in business from Capella University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is an adjunct faculty member in the School of Public Safety Leadership at Capella.