ARE WE HAVING “FUN” YET?

BY RICHARD B. GASAWAY

Fun: To be amused; to enjoy oneself; to be entertained; to be excited. Is having fun while being a member of the fire department important? Whose job is it to make sure the members are having fun? I recently spoke to one chief who was so intrigued by the concept of having fun in the department that he conducted a survey of his members, asking the following:

• How important is having fun to you?

• Are you having fun?

• What do you like the most about being a member?

• What do you like the least about being a member?

• Whose job is it to make sure you’re having fun?

The results of the survey provided the chief with some expected responses and a few surprises. First, in the “no surprises here” category, nearly everyone said that having fun was important. Most of his members said they were having fun. Every department has a few miserable souls who, we all know, are not having fun but stick around anyhow, just to make everyone as miserable as they are. The things that members like the most and least were all over the board. Some liked the responsibility most. One even said that what he liked most was having the privilege of washing his car at the fire station. Most surprising was that the members who weren’t having fun said it was the chief’s job to make sure they were having fun.

I grew up in a family of four boys in a steel mill town in northern West Virginia. The town was limited in the number of things we could do for fun-only one movie theater (with one screen), only one outdoor public swimming pool (with ice-cold water)-you get the idea. Somehow, my brothers and I always found ways to have fun. Rarely did that ever mean we were entertained by our parents.

I can remember as a teenager saying to my mom, “I’m bored,” as if to insinuate that it was somehow her fault I wasn’t having fun and that she should do something about it. Most of the time, the answer I got was, “Well, then do something about it.” What she didn’t do was leap into action and do things to entertain me or to ensure I was having fun. The moral of this story: If we’re not having fun, maybe it’s our own fault. We should find a way to make things fun. We shouldn’t expect or demand that other people make membership in the fire department fun for us.

I may be unique, but I’ve always looked at having fun at work or making work fun as my own responsibility. I’m sure we’ve all had some really bad jobs at some point in our lives. When I was in college, I spent one long hot summer working as a laborer in a steel mill. I can remember that I literally thought I’d died and gone to hell and was perplexed at what I’d done to get there at such a young age. But somehow I managed to still have some fun.

When I became a volunteer firefighter, I derived the most fun from my fire department by going on calls with lights flashing and sirens blaring, as I rode the tailboard hanging on for dear life while a cold wind (and a few bugs) smacked me in the face (behavior we have since come to realize can kill you). We weren’t a really busy department (about 300 calls a year), but it was fun. As time passed, I found new ways to have fun. I became an officer, developing my skills as a leader. I made plenty of mistakes and had my share of rough times. But it was fun, because I made it fun.

Then I became an instructor. And this was fun. I got to help other firefighters develop their skills, and I felt accomplished when I would see them succeed on a fireground. Again, as an instructor, I made my share of mistakes and had some rough times. But it was fun, because I made it fun.

Then I became a chief. And this was fun. Admittedly, it was very different from being a firefighter, a fire officer, or an instructor. So much more responsibility, so many more headaches, so many more problems to be solved. And again, I’ve made my share of mistakes and had some rough times. But it has been fun, because I made it fun.

Whose job is it to make sure the members of our department are having fun? As Wally Amos (the founder of Famous Amos Cookies) once said, “Happiness is an inside job.” I agree with Wally. If we’re not happy (having fun), we can’t blame anyone but ourselves. Unfortunately, we all have members who think that if they’re not having fun, it’s the chief’s fault.

I have never seen a job description for a chief that stated that it’s the duty of the chief to ensure every member is having fun. In fact, that’s impossible. And if we try to make sure everyone is having fun, we’re sure to fail or die young. The job of the chief is to run a business and to do it in a way that provides quality emergency services to our community. I contend that while it is not our job as chiefs to make sure everyone is having fun, it is our job to ensure the work environment fosters success.

Being part of a successful team is fun. Winning is fun. Making a good stop on a structure fire is fun. Very few (real) firefighters would disagree with that. If, in the process of providing a quality service to our community, some of our members have decided that such things are not “fun,” we owe it to our department and to our community to help them find a different way to serve the community. Perhaps serving as a member of the fire department is not for them.

We all know people in our lives who look for the worst in every situation. They complain about everything and everyone. The world has done them wrong. Nothing the fire department’s administration has ever done has ever pleased them. Are these people having fun? Believe it or not, maybe they are. Maybe they’re having fun making everyone’s life as miserable as theirs. After all, misery loves company.

Try this. Seek out your most unhappy member and ask that person if he’s having fun being a member of the department. If for no other reason, do it out of sheer morbid curiosity. If he says no, ask him why he is still a member. Ask what would make being in the fire department “fun.” Compare the answers with the mission and goals of the department. Do they line up? Probably not. Maybe they lined up at one time (when the member was new to the department), but over time they have gotten out of focus.

We are all unique beings with our own personalities and our own views. Hopefully, most of the members serving our departments find interior structural fire attack fun (not withstanding the fact that it is very hazardous and strenuous work). We should realize, however, that we have members who do not see interior structural firefighting as fun, and they avoid doing it.

To be balanced in our view in this issue, we probably have members who enjoy working fund-raising activities such as bingo. They are good at it, and they have fun doing it. And while we have some members who enjoy fund-raising, there are other members who would likely rather have their tonsils extracted without anesthesia than work a bingo event. In this example, two members, both providing a valuable service to the department and to the community, have very different ideas about what is “fun.”

Fortunately, in this example, it’s relatively easy to strike a balance by allowing each of these members to make their contributions to the department and the community in the areas they enjoy the most.

Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple. Let’s look at another example. Some firefighters want to be challenged. They enjoy training. They enjoy the challenges that result from changing and advancing the department. They thrive on these challenges and opportunities and have fun in that environment. Conversely, some firefighters are not as enthusiastic about training, and they are far less excited about being part of a department that is changing. Such an environment is not fun for them. Consequently, they avoid training or are only marginal participants in training sessions, and they resist the progress and changes. This presents a challenge because these two members clearly have different views about what is fun and what is not fun.

As chiefs, we are not responsible for making serving in the fire department “fun” for everyone. Our job is to provide a clear purpose and direction for the department and to create an environment where our members can be successful. And being successful is fun.

RICHARD B. GASAWAY is chief of the Roseville (MN) Fire Department and has been a chief officer for 17 years. He has a master’s degree in business administration and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. Gasaway lectures on management and leadership topics throughout the United States and Canada.

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