More than generation defines a “firefighter”

Thanks to Editor in Chief Robert Halton for “With the Deepest Respect” (Editor’s Opinion, October 2008). It is unclear to me to which generation I belong, but I know I am a young progressive-minded person who has been fortunate to achieve success in the fire service. I am well aware of the work I still need to continue my success. I am in full agreement with the comments and thoughts in the editorial.

I had the pleasure of being in one of Chief Halton’s classes a couple of years ago. He spoke of his son who had just completed flight school. I thought, “This is great—pride not only in your son but also in his achievement.”

I will fast forward to just a couple of months ago, when I attended a class called “21st Century Chief Officer,” which is supposed to give newly promoted chief officers guidance and ideas for being progressive. Part of the class included a discussion concerning the “new generation” and how and what they do not do or do not know how to do. This “progressive” chief officer began to expound on the new generation and related that these firefighters do not know which end of a screwdriver is up. This set me on a slow smolder.

This experience was followed with an encounter with another “progressive” chief I had considered a mentor. He told a story of a rookie firefighter who was asked to cut the station grass by the lieutenant. The candidate jumped at the task and completed it for the officer. When the officer looked out, he saw the mower tracks, but the grass was not cut. When the lieutenant asked the firefighter if he had cut the grass, he proudly said yes and that he had even cleaned the mower. The lieutenant then asked him if he engaged the blades; the firefighter said he thought he had. The lieutenant conducted this whole “skit” in front of the chief, and I am sure it was brought to the shift’s attention. You can only imagine how quickly this event circulated throughout this entire department. At the time, the class got a big belly laugh going. I began to squirm in my seat with frustration until I could hold out no longer. I said to the “progressive” chief, “Maybe there is a problem with your generation. Did anyone think to ask the firefighter if he knew how to operate the lawn mower?” I added: “Maybe that firefighter could fix your spreadsheet for your budget.”

I asked this “progressive” chief, “What type of mentoring program does your department have?” You can only guess what his answer was. I followed up with the comment: “You have set a career path for this young firefighter for the next 20 to 30 years.”

I offered to my classmates a slightly different view. I told them that the fire service is ours! Anyone who comes into the service, no matter the generation, has a duty to make the fire service theirs. Chief Rick Lasky of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department, a mentor of mine, has a great system for relating the history of the fire service to new members of his department. He has a questionnaire all retiring department members must complete. The completed questionnaire is put into a book for new members to read so they can become familiar with the department’s traditions.

I feel that one of our shortcomings is that we expect everyone who comes into our service to be cut from the same mold: All personnel should learn the same way, all personnel should ask what we perceive as “intelligent” questions, and all personnel can be trained by the same methods. What does it matter which teaching techniques are used to train our members if the members are comfortable and the material is learned? Some instructors cannot adapt or are not trained well enough to answer questions asked by new personnel. An instructor, a station officer, and a chief are responsible for teaching anyone who enters our fire service our traditions and those lessons that must be learned. They should not be making assumptions about the newer members.

Timothy Leidig
Deputy Chief of Operations
Mundelein (IL) Fire Department

Tom Brennan’s legacy

About two years ago, I was promoted to captain. I found myself more hungry than ever for anything that could make me a better company officer—tactically, philosophically, etc. When I stumbled across the collection of “Random Thoughts” by Tom Brennan (Tom Brennan’s Random Thoughts, Fire Engineering, 2007), I jumped on it. However, I didn’t realize how much was in that book! I paid $39. After reading it the first time, I would have paid $100!

I started in the fire service about 1993, and I recall reading Tom Brennan’s articles occasionally; however, they never resonated in me then as they do now. As valuable as his tactical writings are, I have found that his inspirational words, the motivation that he provides, and the absolute positivity of his vision are even more priceless. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to meet Chief Brennan, hear him speak, or really understand how great a firefighter he really was until after his passing.

With that said, I really think the fire service is lacking people like Chief Brennan these days. I remember that my dad, many of my uncles and cousins, and the first few captains I worked for were a lot like him—accepting, positive, motivating, and caring leaders. Such firefighters are still out there, but they just don’t seem as prevalent as 10 or 15 years ago. I miss that. Fortunately, Fire Engineering was able to capture that with Chief Brennan and to preserve it for firefighters today and in the future. I feel that he really made the point that it is okay to be nice to each other. We have to be willing to develop trust in each other, and we need to work hard through our entire careers, not just at the start.

I am now on my second reading of the Random Thoughts collection. I am sure I will get as much or more from it than I did the first time. I look forward to reading two columns before I go to work each night.

Chief Brennan has made me a more effective, efficient, and safe firefighter; he has proven to me the importance of being a positive role model, a good teacher, and a responsible officer. He had no obligation to share, but he did.

Jason N. Vestal
Sacramento Metro (CA) Fire Department

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