BY STUART GRANT AND LES STEPHENS
Have you ever felt that we firefighters are our own worst enemies? Have you ever heard the members talking about “how” and “why” we don’t get this or that? Sometimes, it’s eye-opening to listen to what firefighters say around the kitchen table or in the watch room. The talk will revolve around how this company can or can’t do this or that and how the members need to train more. They’ll talk about how administration is putting out more memos or directives and is killing them with paperwork. They will finally digress to how “they” are micromanaging them to death and how “they” don’t trust “us.”
Firefighters can solve the world’s problems during these discussions, but if you try to actually implement some of their solutions, they would just as soon take you out back and tie you to a tree! It has been said that you can ask a firefighter to help you with any favor or project, but ask him to do his job and he will hate you forever.
We must change the culture in which we live and work and embrace the opportunity that has been offered. All of us are part of something that we can’t take for granted—the fire service. Next time, look at how many people are applying for a career with your organization; literally hundreds compete for a few openings whenever they occur. We need to stop being our own worst enemies!
TURNOUTS AND TOOLS
The next time you go to work, observe how other members check out their personal protective equipment and the equipment on the apparatus. Do they just go through the motions, or do they really check, inventory, and clean the tools and equipment? Many times throughout a firefighter’s career, he can become complacent, and that can have disastrous results. Firefighters should inspect their gear as they remove it from the storage locker to ensure that it’s serviceable and that their tools are also in good working order. Inspect all coats, bunker pants, boots, suspenders, hoods, gloves, and helmets every shift you work. Inspect all flashlights, personal alert safety system (PASS) devices, face masks, and tools in your pockets to ensure they are in good working order.
What about the tools on the apparatus? What condition are they in? Are they clean, are they fueled, have they been started, and are the handles in good condition? You must check all of these items on every shift and after every use.
Many times, you will see firefighters come into the station, grab their gear off the rack, throw it on the apparatus, and walk into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. That’s the last time they think about it until the bell hits, which is not the time to find out that your turnout coat zipper will not zip or that your gloves are missing. Again, the problem lies with us.
Have you ever made a run to a house or an apartment and thought, “How do these people live in such a mess?” What about the firehouse? How does it look, and what would others think about how it looks? This is a direct reflection on us and our department. Again, this comes back to us. Are we the problem? Of course we are—we live there.
We are ultimately responsible for what the station looks like. We should treat the fire station as if it were our own house. After all, this is our home for a good portion of our lives. At the beginning of each shift, pick up any cups and bowls, wash the dishes, sweep and mop the floors, take out the trash, put the newspaper where it belongs, return the magazines to the rack, wipe down the counters, and pick up the yard.
If we don’t do these things, we lose or break dishes, our floors get grungy, and mice and insects infest the station. Then, of course, the same ones who don’t keep the station clean are the ones complaining because we need to take up a collection to buy new cups and glasses, strip and wax the floor, and do something about the bugs!
If we are concerned about how our fire stations look, what about our firefighters? What are your members wearing, and how do they look in it? We are supposed to be a professional organization, and we want to project a professional image that garners the respect of our coworkers and the public. What kind of first impression do we make on the public—our customers? First impressions make or break us. We must remember that individuals generally call us once in their lifetime—this is our opportunity to sell ourselves and our organizations. We must come across as knowledgeable, competent, caring, and dedicated professionals. The public and our peers form their first impression of us based on our uniforms and appearance.
Your shirt and pants should represent your department well, not bring undue attention to you. Members should be well-groomed; an officer shouldn’t have to tell his people to shave. They may be young, but they have joined an organization with a long and great history with the public, and they should look the part. If you look like you care about yourself and the organization, then the citizens will believe that you care about them.
So your uniform is clean and pressed—is that enough? Absolutely not! How we greet and treat people is the second part of our first impression. Fire departments have received many complaints based on how one of the members addressed a citizen. For example, have you watched and listened to how your firefighters first encounter the public? Do they approach them and ask, “Hi, I’m from the fire department. What’s wrong, and how can I help?” Or do they snap at them, “Why did you call us?” or “What do you want?” Would you want them to speak to your family this way?
The first words that we say to the citizens will set the tone for the entire time we are in contact with them. Firefighters must remember that these people called us for a reason. Some event has turned their world upside down; they look to us to turn it right side up. Most of the time, showing up with a smile and asking what we can do to help will ease tension, build confidence, and set a positive tone between firefighters and the public.
First impressions count. As an evacuation was underway, a citizen asked whether this was the correct route, and the firefighter responded, “Yes, it is, stupid!” That citizen took away a negative impression of the fire service, one that we created. Again, we did it to ourselves.
We seem to have standard operating procedures and guidelines (SOPs/SOGs) for everything that we do; many are associated with someone’s name. Several years ago, a committee reviewed several procedure manuals to streamline them. Going through the procedures, the committee eliminated items that seemed like common sense—they referred to things that responsible adults should already know. Ensuing discussions revealed the origin of each procedure and who was responsible for its creation. Since then, new procedures have been added to the manuals because someone did something that embarrassed or discredited the department or himself.
One classic example involves an incident in St. Louis. According to that department’s red-light policy, if there’s a red light at an intersection, apparatus drivers must stop and look both ways to ensure they have a clear intersection before proceeding through. Department members must drive cautiously and must not “run” intersections.
On October 17, 2008, some members ignored that policy. As a result, eight firefighters were injured, and two quints were seriously damaged. These members, however, did follow the department’s seat belt use policy, which prevented them from suffering more serious injuries. These two apparatus never arrived at the structure fire to which they were responding; they became an incident themselves (photo 1).
|(1) Photo by Ben Mazanec.|
Even after this news of this incident spread throughout the fire service community, it happened again in Houston, Texas, in March 2009. This time, 11 firefighters were injured and one civilian was killed.
INSPECTIONS AND REPORTS
Another thing that can come back to bite us is pencil-whipping our reports and inspections—falsifying a document by filling out and filing the form without actually doing the work. Recently, a department responded to a fire in a variety store. After the fire, a closer examination revealed cluttered rear aisles, a padlocked back door, and fire extinguishers that hadn’t been inspected in several years. The last inspection report showed no problems and noted the inspection date, which was within the current year.
At a structure fire, another department experienced not one but three burst hose sections during the fire. A closer inspection revealed that the outer hose jacket had dry-rotted and the inner jacket had burst. Although in this case losing the attack line didn’t put the citizens at risk, it did put the attack line firefighters at risk. The department’s hose records were supposed to be updated annually. Clearly, in both instances, the reports were pencil-whipped, and the inspections never happened. Again, we ended up putting “us” at risk.
Training is the cornerstone of the fire service. From the moment a firefighter enters the fire academy to the moment that member leaves the fire station for the very last time, he should train every day. Company drills, formal schools, or just quick drills on those cold, rainy days—every shift should have some type of training. But what happens when you tell the troops to assemble in the apparatus room? From all the griping and complaining, you would think you were taking money from them! Once you get them out there, they get into it and participate, and you hear things like, “That was great—we needed it!”
Until, of course, you have them assemble again next shift. Then it starts all over again. At least these members are actually doing training, but what about the other members who only train with the pencil? Their training records look impressive until you see them on the fireground. They can’t find the end of the hose. Now you know what kind of training they are really doing—sharpening the pencil and filling out the forms in the recliner! What kind of a liability are they to the other members who respond with them to an incident?
Again, we have done a disservice to the citizens and have put ourselves and our fellow firefighters at risk. This makes our job harder and more dangerous. Sometimes you wish the incident commander would just send them home and deal with them later. Our job is a simple one: We go out and help the citizens with whatever emergency they have, which sometimes requires highly technical skills.
These are the same companies whose members complain that the officers are hounding or micromanaging them. Change the culture, and teach your people something new or refresh on something every day. While at the station on a Sunday, I noticed the command technician giving the firefighters a class on how to manage district staffing and account for everyone on each shift. Earlier that same day, these same members were in the yard training on hoseline advancement. On a Sunday! That’s the kind of culture we need (photo 2)!
(2) Photo by Stuart Grant.
How does the fire administration treat your firefighters? Does it create a motivating environment that encourages members to get involved and push the fire department to the forefront within its city? Or does it consistently take advantage of the members, beating them down to the point where they just show up and then go home? One department was introducing a paramedic engine concept that would include the officers in the paramedic complement. At one affected station, a captain and former paramedic volunteered to return to paramedic school to renew his certification so he could fulfill the position’s requirements and continue working at his current assignment. Since the department would have to draft someone to go, why not this officer who had volunteered? The department responded that the captain could go but he would have to do it on his own time and pay his own way through the class.
WHAT? The department had an actual volunteer. It broke the captain’s spirit, and the captain stopped caring. The captain came to the station, did what had to be done, and went home at the end of the shift. The administration had become its own worst enemy. It took a highly motivated member and through its actions showed how little it values its employees.
How do your firefighters treat the new members (rookies) of your department? Do they mentor them into becoming the future employees that you would be proud to have in your department, or do they beat them down?
One department makes a tremendous effort in its hiring process. It hires certified firefighter/paramedics and puts them through a fantastic recruit orientation before assigning them to a fire station. However, once the recruits report to the station, you would think they had committed a crime. For the next year, the new firefighters are treated inappropriately and are harassed, belittled, and made to feel inadequate. Over the years, several new firefighters have quit the department. What a waste of the taxpayer’s money and an individual’s self-esteem! Why go through the effort of hiring these people and then try and run them off?
But after a year, all of a sudden, these members are accepted as if nothing has happened. Those who do stick it out may get the impression that this is the way things ought to be—you can imagine what kind of employees they’ll become.
We should take new members and mentor them during their first years. Sure, there are rookie chores or duties (see “I Wish They Had Told Me: Simple Things to Help You Through the First Year,” Fire Engineering, July 2006), but we need to take them into our departments and make them the employees that we want them to be. What we put into them is what we are going to get out of them. The future of our departments depends on these individuals. We can ensure a great future if we help these new members succeed. Let’s not be the reason they don’t! Be a “brother,” not a “bully”!
Looking around your department, what kind of culture do you see? Are your members striving to be the best firefighters they can and working on team efficiency? Or are they couch fungus firefighters? These guys come to the station to take it easy, work on their part-time job, and complain about everything under the sun and how the department is mistreating them. That’s not the reputation that you want. Hopefully, you are building the reputation of the kind of “go-to” firefighter that everyone wants to work for them. You want to be the kind of firefighter that you would want on a rapid intervention team because you know they would go through thick and thin to get you.
Remember the pride you felt when you first got your firefighting gear? What did you do with it? You hurried home, put it on, and admired yourself in the mirror. That pride swelled up inside you, and you thought you were going to burst. You should have that feeling every day when you go to work! Even in today’s economy, despite all the budget cuts and reductions, most of us have adequate staffing; serviceable apparatus and equipment; and, for the most part, bosses who truly care. Of course, we always want a little more—nothing wrong with that.
However, it seems we spend a great portion of our time griping and complaining about the few things we don’t have instead of spending our energy on the things we can control and improve, such as training, physical fitness, studying our districts, and improving our proficiency with our tools and equipment. It is amazing that we try to make everything someone else’s fault. Let’s continue to work for better equipment and improved staffing, but at the same time, put just as much or more effort into improving our job knowledge, skills, and abilities. In short, let’s stop being our own worst enemies!
STUART GRANT, CFO, a 31-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief with Dallas (TX) Fire Rescue, where he has served as academy commander, hazmat officer, paramedic, and rope rescue member. He is a certified master firefighter and fire instructor with the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. He is a task force leader for the Dallas Regional USAR team and the state’s TX-TF2. He instructs at Collin County Community College in McKinney, Texas, and at the Texas A&M University Municipal Fire School. He has two associate degrees and a bachelor’s degree in fire administration. He has been recognized as a Center of Public Service Excellence Chief Fire Officer.
LES STEPHENS is a 19-year veteran of the fire service. Prior to being appointed chief in San Marcos, Texas, in August 2009, he was a battalion chief with the Garland (TX) Fire Department. He is a certified master firefighter and an instructor with the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. He has served as his department’s training instructor and is an instructor at Collin County Community College in McKinney, Texas, and the Texas A&M University Municipal Fire School. He has an associate degree in fire protection from Tarrant County College and is enrolled in the National Fire Academy’s EFO program.