Firefighting, Leadership

It’s Not a Cliché: Words To Live by

Photo by Tony Greco.

By Eric G. Bachman

There is a saying that, “Motivation comes from within.” There is a unique reason that every firefighter has for joining and staying in the fire service. It may have been a life-long dream, following in the footsteps of a generational firefighting family, or perhaps it was just a job (initially, anyway). As one’s career (paid or volunteer) progresses, special interests are cultivated, and advanced training and skill refinement is sought, practiced, and mastered. Mastery of skills comes with experience, trial and error, and failure.

When I joined the volunteer fire service as a teenager in the early 1980s, training competencies were fostered more from on-the-job training than through the multiple source opportunities and robust curriculums available today. Technology advancements have forged an ever increasing and changing learning environment that has not only enhanced competencies and skills but has also disproved many early theories of fire science and extinguishment practices. These revelations should be cause for all fire service personnel—regardless of tenure or title—to constantly read, learn, and train on the latest information and tactical suggestions.

 

Subject Matter Experts

Another changing fire service arena is the subject matter expert (SME) presentation circuit. More and more fire service veterans are going on the road to present new information, offer best practices, and present methodologies for efficient incident tactics and safer personnel operations. Back in the day, there were few SME speaking engagements or, at least, the events had limited advertisement. For me, when the opportunity arose to see a well-known fire service leader speak locally (or within a reasonable travel distance), I attended and savored his words. I was a frequent note taker, studying and recalling their messages, and applying them locally.

As a child, I was enamored by the fire service. When I joined the Eden (PA) Fire Company, it was all new to me. I had no previous exposure to the fire service, and I just wanted to learn. My note-taking habit has followed through my entire fire service career thus far, and it has served me well in recounting factual data and suggestions from SMEs as well as validating some of my own fire service special interests.

 

Inspiration

What inspires or motivates someone is based on the individual. Sometimes, however, those motivations decline by routine activities and physically- and mentally-draining efforts concentrated on personal and personnel issues as well as other external influences. I’ve certainly been caught on the business side doldrums of fire service management such as budget lobbing and having to compromise with municipal officials. Sometimes we need to be reminded, motivated, and inspired to create a real purpose for the fire service, i.e., serving the community. For me, participating in a training program or attending a SME seminar reinvigorates me and once again heightens my fire service “senses.”

I often reflect on certain adages and related fire service sayings and, sometimes, reiterate them in my presentations. It is likely, especially if you are a tenured fire service veteran, that you have been exposed to many fire service sayings. Sometimes, these axioms are spoken haphazardly or taken as cliché without truly embracing their essence and their background. But fire service “clichés” are not formulated without reason; they are based on favorable and tragic experiences and lessons observed or identified through case study events and personal situations. One universal cliché is, “Experience is the best teacher.” Favorable experiences reinforce good practices and unfavorable experiences provide an improvement opportunity. So why would you not want to learn from others experiences?    

RELATED: Rubin on When Words Become Weapons, Part 1Manning on Fighting Fires with WordsShapiro: Words of Wisdom on Moving the Big Water

 

Mentors

For the long-time firefighters reading this, you likely can recall someone in your early fire service days that was instrumental in training or guiding you. They may have taught you certain skills, spoken specific words of wisdom, or provided other watchful “trial-and-error” learning opportunities. For me, there were two men that greatly influenced my preplanning obsession and advancement in the fire department. As an impressionable teenager joining with no fire service background, I credit Randy Kuenzli of the Lancaster County’s (PA) Eden Fire Company No. 1 for cultivating my interest in preplanning. At the time, he was captain of the department. One day, while watching him enhance “run books” with hand-drawn maps that identified hydrant locations and distances, I asked if I could help him. His response was, “What area do you know?” I put pencil to paper and drew it. From then on, I was hooked. Today, Randy is chief of the Bladensburg (MD) Fire Department.

A second mentor, also from the Eden Fire Company No. 1, was Craig Elmer. During his tenure as the department’s chief, he promoted me to assistant chief and allowed me to manage calls, providing me with some impactful suggestions. In addition, he helped me through one the darkest days of my personal and fire service career when my best friend and firefighting comrade J. Brian Harnly was killed in the line of duty in a fire truck crash. Craig now serves as the director of the Lancaster County (PA) Public Safety Training Center. I amicably succeeded Craig as chief.

So, who mentored you, and who was instrumental to your fire service career?

     

Pioneers

Besides organizational mentors, there have been many pioneers in the fire service whose experiences have culminated into breakthrough and impactful research, teaching the fire service how to operate better—and safer—at incidents. Some experiences have resulted in improvements to risk management practices, while others have reinforced heightened skill development and competence. During my fire service career and study, I have learned much from many pioneers not just from their books but also from first-hand appearances at seminars, conferences, and other trainings.

The fire service uses many clichés and sayings to stress their topical importance, some of which follow:

  • “We haven’t found any new ways to kill ourselves; we are killing ourselves the same way year after year!” I remember hearing this during a seminar taught by Matt Tobia, now an assistant chief in the Loudon County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department. If you compare annual line-of-duty death (LODD) casualty categories, there isn’t anything new. It’s the same old, same old story.
  • “Safety is everyone’s responsibility.” This is a true statement I’ve heard from many pioneers, but more specifically I have heard it from National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Executive Director and former chief Ron Sanicki. Remember, no matter what equipment and procedures are in place, safe practices start from within. Many LODD reports identify safety issues as contributing factors.
  • “Make everday training day!” I first heard this from Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder of the Loveland-Symmes (OH) Fire Department. No one knows everything about everything; things get forgotten, and unpracticed skills deteriorate. So, use every opportunity to stay on top of things. Far too often, LODD reports highlight a lack of training or consistent training as a contributing factor.
  • “The building is the enemy; know the enemy.” This statement was reinforced constantly by the late Francis Brannigan. Understanding and recognizing building construction types will support anticipation of the buildings reaction to fire conditions.
  • “Risk a lot to save a lot. Risk a little to save little. Risk nothing to save nothing.” I heard this one from Chief (ret.) Alan Brunacini of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department. We need to do a better job of initial and continued incident size-up to develop realistic expectations of the incident progression. If fire is shooting out every window of an unoccupied building, what is the benefit of sending in personnel?
  • “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.” This is a classic statement that I attribute to Gordon Graham, a 33-year police veteran and risk management professional. Understanding building construction and its reaction to fire, the physical and chemical characteristics of hazardous substances, or the capabilities and limitations of your personnel will enable you to anticipate (predict) the result and initiate effective (prevent) actions to safeguard personnel.

Do not take lightly the significance of these sayings for the fire service; embrace each through all levels of the organization and make them a part of its culture, not just something that gets remembered after something goes wrong.

 

Intelligence Axiom

I certainly do not put myself in the same pioneer category with the likes of Tobia, Sarnicki, Goldfeder, Brannigan, Brunacini, and Graham as well as other tremendous, renowned, and well-respected fire service pioneers. But based on feedback from readers of my past articles and students of my preplanning classes as well as the prodding of many colleagues, with humbleness to “stay in my lane” of what I (think I) know and try to profess, I want to offer another axiom to become the foundation of your organization’s preincident intelligence program, and that is, It’s Our Business to Know Their Business!” In many LODD reports, the lack of preplanning was a contributing factor. You are tasked with protecting ALL of the elements in your community, and you need to know as much as you can about ALL of those elements. It is the business of the fire department to know the process, practices, and hazards of the all-inclusive “businesses” it protects.

This intelligence axiom is a full-circle application to all of the previously mentioned clichés. If you don’t embrace this, you will make the same mistakes (e.g., Tobia), personnel will not be as safe as they can be (e.g., Sarnicki), you will not learn new things or maintain skills for the potential in your district (e.g., Goldfeder), you won’t know the buildings you protect (e.g. Brannigan), you may not recognize certain conditions and will take unnecessary risks (e.g., Brunacini), and you certainly will not be able to predict how the building will react to fire conditions nor the capabilities and limitations of your organization (e.g.,  Graham). The bottom line is: Get out into your community and know it intimately. Understanding, embracing, and applying the basis of fire service clichés is directly related to your safety.

The motivation and drive to provide the best community service you possibly can comes from within. Sometimes, the inspiration comes from a personal mentor. In other cases, it may be sparked from SMEs and other fire service pioneers. Clichés can sometimes be minimized and applied haphazardly, mockingly, and comically to personal experiences. In the fire service, profound axioms often deemed cliché can be discounted because of perceived overuse or misunderstanding of their background or application.

All fire department hierarchy should embrace, reinforce, and apply enhanced organizational preparedness and personal safety as if they are words to live by.

 

ERIC G. BACHMAN, CFPS, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service and a former chief of the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the hazardous materials administrator for the County of Lancaster Emergency Management Agency and serves on the Local Emergency Planning Committee of Lancaster County. He is registered with the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications as a fire officer IV, fire instructor III, hazardous materials technician, and hazardous materials incident commander. He has an associate degree in fire science and earned professional certification in emergency management through the state of Pennsylvania. He is also a volunteer firefighter with the West Hempfield (PA) Fire & Rescue Company.