By ALAN BRUNACINI
Given that I am unemployed and actively avoiding work, I now spend most of my time aimlessly wandering about seeking just about anything that makes sense to me. So far, I have not discovered much that does, but I continue to seek. One of the major areas of my focus of wonderment as I read and watch and listen is why we humans behave as we do. Lots of times when the nightly news is on and recounting the human behavior score for the day, I ask the LWD (little white dog), What in the world are they reporting and what planet are we on? Generally, she just cocks her head a bit, goes back to sleep, and happily dreams of dinnertime treats. She seems to have a very low stress level, probably because she is more preoccupied with treats than human behavior. I probably should adopt her approach.
One day, while I was trying to untangle the latest human riddle, I remembered a story from the past. In an automobile discussion (frequent fire station topic), one of the troops said that he knew someone who had worked in an automotive production plant on the assembly line. That person related that when a plant worker wanted to buy a car, he would check the production records and select one that had been assembled on Wednesday morning. Part of the story (probably urban legend) was that Wednesday morning cars were superior to cars assembled on other days. The basic reason for this Wednesday superiority, according to the story, was the typical mood of the workers when they did their part in assembling the vehicle; hence, middle-of-the-week cars lasted longer, ran better, and never rattled because every part was effectively installed. As I recounted that story, it occurred to me that the same logic could be applied to humans.
We all know many types of folks during our lives, and it might be that our basic profile and personality are the results of what day of the week we were assembled – if the story is accurate. Monday workers are probably a bit grumpy simply because the weekend is typically too short and Monday reminds the workers they have four more long days to go to get to fishing and golf. On Tuesday, the workers are in a better mood because they got through Monday. Wednesday is the day where the assemblers are in the best state of balance and operate at the top of their game. Thursday is when we start to wind down a bit because the weekend is coming up. Friday is the day when the workers loosen up and get ready for two glorious days of not having the beginning of a car move past them all day as they bolt on their contribution to the developing car.
The autos they produce on whatever day, at least as the story goes, reflect the biorhythms of the workers. The car companies have produced cars for a long time and have figured out the production/mood connection of their workers without reading my breathtaking rantings. They have established minimum quality production standards, no matter what day the car was put together. In spite of those minimum standards, we have all experienced as we have trudged through life that many times a very small positive difference (added value) can produce a huge effect on the outcome.
Theory Linked to Person
As I pondered all this, I had an experience where I connected my worker/mood = car/quality theory to an actual person. Recently, a long-time fire service friend Ray Picard died, and I attended his funeral. He was the fire chief in Huntington Beach, California, for many years. He was an excellent educator and, for the almost 50 years I knew him, he was consistently doing, thinking, and planning about 25 years ahead of whatever was current at the time. His funeral was absolutely appropriate in that it matched how he was: It was positive, upbeat, dignified, and funny in places. Everyone who spoke affectionately described how they connected to him and how much he meant to them. Members of his family, one of his handball buddies, and fire officers who were closely connected to him spoke. They told stories about experiences they had with him and how those contacts with him influenced their lives. As I listened to them relate his effect on them personally and professionally, I thought if everyone he positively influenced during his life got to relate their feelings about him, the funeral would have been conducted in an Amazon distribution warehouse. If that had occurred, I would have attempted to be first in line.
I have been a firefighter in Arizona throughout my career. When I joined the service, the training opportunities in our state were very unrefined. Those of us who were attempting to expand our knowledge and advancement traveled to California for educational opportunities and examples of more advanced departments and operational programs. The Southern California fire officers also provided (and still provide) role model examples, particularly for young firefighters seeking a profile for imitation. During my life, I have had, and still have, the opportunity to directly observe and interact with our service all over North America. Although I see many excellent departments and fire folks all over, I believe California fire systems and humans are still the most advanced that I encounter. I also reflect that Chief Picard’s lifelong contribution is a major reason for that California level of excellence. Most of the programs he invented have been institutionalized, and their effect will be timeless.
Chief Picard’s Influence on Me
I met Chief Picard as a young firefighter in a number of training sessions that he conducted. It was at the early stage of my career when I was seeking positive examples to imitate. He was 6 feet, 4 inches tall; athletic; trim but very substantial; and handsome (+) and had a soothing, strong voice and a confident manner. He was polite, considerate, and appropriately funny. There clearly was no way that a guy like me who is a cross between Yogi Berra and Groucho Marx could imitate a guy who was a combination of Clark Gable and John Wayne.
Despite our differences, from the first time I was in one of his classes, he treated me in a positive, supportive way that challenged me to engage my brain and imagination and created a very supportive environment, as a journeyman instructor does for the student so that the student can express and expand his state of learning. Whenever he interacted with me, he effectively challenged my ability to think and learn beyond my level by leading the interaction in an interesting, fun, and supportive way. He was a great story teller and generally produced a very understandable flip chart model as he told the story. Many of his stories included examples of situations where he flubbed and the lesson he learned. He really enjoyed telling a story about himself that was funny, educational, and memorable. Although I never reached anywhere close to his modeling skill, I continue to mark up diner napkins with a ballpoint pen to try to make the point graphically. I guess it is a Picard imitation.
One of the greatest gifts I received from him was a series of fire operations classes in which he presented very early direction to local incident command; he was a pioneer in using fire simulation to connect command with strategy and tactics. The material he presented, along with his very able teaching partner Chief Frank Kelly (a very interesting, fun team), became for me the foundation and template for what later became the Fire Command textbook that has now evolved into the Blue Card Hazard Zone Management Program. I continue to actively engage in that material and fondly remember sitting in a Picard class somewhere in California and hearing his voice when I was a 24-year-old firefighter. His intelligence and kindness in producing understanding and capability were for me truly gifts that keep giving.
As my career continued, I was fortunate to go through the ranks and eventually became the fire chief of my department. I continued to maintain and enjoy a relationship with Picard as I progressed in my department. He had the innate ability to connect and relate to everyone in the context of the other person and had the program management experience and skill to continually add value to contacts with him no matter where you were in your own food chain. I interacted with him for virtually my entire career, and he treated me with the same positive personal support and caring as when I was a young firefighter with three years on the job, a middle-age chief for 28 years, and an ancient retiree.
Picard, a Unique Mentor
We hear a lot of conversation about “mentoring.” I continue to believe that developing this student-teacher relationship is rare. It is difficult to maintain an authentic, productive, and educational connection between two people that can outperform personality dynamics, organizational politics, and the mutual ego challenges driven mostly by power and comparative stature. He was an exception because he had the natural and refined capability to engage in a way that increased competence and value in the person with whom he interacted. He never failed to increase knowledge and the motivation to apply the substance of our contact; hanging out with him made me smarter and always provided the encouraging and empowering feeling that I could do whatever we discussed. I was fortunate because I was in a position to translate our discussions (and the positive feelings he created) into projects and programs within my department.
We were both participants for many years (at least 25!) in a small group of fire officers that meets twice a year. We conduct an informal, active, unstructured two days of discussions about current fire service topics, personal experiences, projects, and challenges. The substance of the interaction is based on real-world, many times difficult and challenging, things a boss must manage and endure. Through the years, we have all lived through success, failure, betrayal, divorce, being fired, a lot of emotional stories of the view from being thrown under the bus, and all the other happy and sad events that occur in the lives of busy fire officers.
As we processed all these “stories,” Chief Picard would intensely listen; ask thoughtful, intelligent questions; and critically connect to the answer. Many times, he would go to the flip chart, quickly sketch a graphic model that described the structure of the situation, make stick figures for the players, and then connect those players to the situation; then he would predict the outcome based on his model in a very logical way directed to the person who brought the topic to the group. Although it was in a meeting setting, the longer I was involved with him, I realized that what he could do so naturally was truly authentic mentoring. It was spooky how accurate his response and prediction were in follow-up discussions in subsequent meetings in how the scenario turned out.
When I remember the value of our relationship and the effect his amazing capability had on me, I really believe it was directly connected to the human assembly plant where on a bright and sunny Wednesday Ray Picard was assembled.
Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.
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