By Steve Prziborowski
If you no longer work in the fire station, or have never worked in the fire station, you may be out of touch with reality, especially with how you perceive life at the fire station and the daily routine of a firefighter. I bet there are even some fire service personnel still assigned to a fire station that are out of touch with reality. How could this happen? How could this be true?
Face it: if you don’t use it, you lose it. If you are not exposed to something on a regular basis, or you do not force yourself to be more aware of something you are not actively involved in, the common tendency is to be out of touch with reality.
Here are ten different ways to ensure that you are in touch with fire service reality:
1. Talk to your personnel. This is probably the most important item of all, next to number ten, which is to force yourself to stay grounded. Ever heard of the term “Management by Walking Around?” If not, I encourage you to subscribe to it. Obviously you cannot spend all of your available hours talking with your personnel and visiting every fire station and work site. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you cannot spend all of your working hours hunkered down at your desk, with the door shut and the appearance of someone who is so busy he never has time to talk to anyone. However, there needs to be a balance.
2. Read fire service publications on a regular basis. Although it is very important for staff personnel to read fire service and non-fire service publications (especially ones that deal with governmental issues and business), reading as many of the fire service publications as you can every month, will help keep you up-to-date with the fire service. You will see the latest trends, latest apparatus, tools and equipment, and latest viewpoints, among other things.
3. Visit and research fire service Web sites. Start with your own department’s Web site, especially if you have never seen it. Then branch out to your neighboring departments in the area, in the state, the rest of the country, and even internationally. Evaluate the capabilities of departments. Take a look at their staffing, their facilities, their apparatus, their news releases, and their history. See what they are doing that may be considered progressive or cutting edge.
4. Visit other fire departments and fire stations. Start with your neighboring departments. Set up a mutual aid drill with one of your neighboring agencies to evaluate their capabilities and resources. Have a show-and-tell session for each of your apparatus. Discuss your strategy and tactics as well as department operations for various events. Take the time when you are on vacation to stop by one fire station. Introduce yourself as a firefighter and more than likely you will be received with open arms, invited in, and be given the grand tour.
5. Network with other fire service professionals. Don’t limit yourself to personnel of similar ranks. Try to develop relationships with personnel from all ranks and from around the country. You never know when you are going to need some advice or information to help solve a problem or come to a solution regarding a critical decision. If you think you are the only one having a certain problem or facing a certain situation, you are probably wrong. Many others have probably had to deal with that same issue or situation, and can provide valuable guidance and feedback.
6. Continuously educate and train yourself. If you do not have a two-year degree in fire technology completed, what are you waiting for? Once that is done, consider your four-year degree as well as a graduate degree. By educating yourself with other professionals in similar trades, you get to stay up to date with the fire service. Individuals completing their four-year degrees and graduate degrees are typically the future movers and shakers – the ones who are aspiring to promote and are keeping in touch with fire service reality. Learn from others about what is occurring in and working for them in their respective departments. Besides formal education, take fire service training and certification classes through your state fire marshal’s office, the National Fire Academy, and your local junior college, as well as other fire service institutions. What have you done to keep up-to-date with the knowledge, skills and abilities you were taught in that rescue operations class you took ten years ago? On-the-job training may or may not be enough. For example, if you have been practicing the wrong (or unsafe) techniques the entire time, you have not been doing anybody any good.
7. Attend fire service seminars, conferences, and workshops. There are numerous conferences around the country, such as the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) held in Indianapolis, Indiana, every April. Fire service professionals from around the country attend this week-long training session to listen to fire service professionals from across the country and from around the world discuss the latest trends and most progressive fire service operations. They also come to attend the hands-on training sessions and walk around the exhibit hall to see the latest apparatus, tools, and equipment.
8. Teach fire service classes at the local junior college. Teaching is tough work. For every hour of lecture, there are at least three hours of preparation (assuming you want to do a great job and be a quality instructor). Teaching fire service classes should force you to stay up-to-date with the latest and greatest fire service trends, practices, and activities. The students deserve the best. They are the future of the fire service.
9. Mentor others. The fire service is at a critical juncture – we losing most of our experience to retirement. If we do not tap into that experience, we will miss out on valuable information for our future company and chief officers. Take the time to mentor others. Mentoring does not have to be formal. In fact, sometimes informal mentoring can work just as well if not better than a formal process that scares away people because of the massive amounts of paperwork and ground rules. As a mentor, you have the chance to be a critical component of someone’s career development. Staying up-to-date with the fire service is a must, as the person you are mentoring is looking at you as the guiding light and voice of fire service experience and reason.
10. Force yourself to stay grounded, and to not lose touch of reality. When all else fails, you must rely on yourself to not let yourself get out of touch. Self awareness and control can be one of the most powerful tools in your career development. Most of us want to do the right thing; however, unless we are told we are doing the wrong things, we may never realize our mistakes or wrongdoings. If you’re waiting for your personnel to tell you that you are out of touch with reality, you’re missing the boat and are probably going to be way behind.
Will doing all or many of the above items guarantee that you will always be in touch with the reality of the fire service? Of course not, there are always exceptions to everything in life. However, you will have a better chance at remaining in touch with the reality of the fire service if you are doing as many of the above items as you can. The higher up the chain of command you find yourself, the more important it is to stay grounded and in touch with fire service reality. Every time you promote, there are additional requirements you must meet and changes you must make to your behavior and to how you are being perceived by others. If you don’t forget where you came from, you should be successful at whatever rank or position you find yourself filling.
Steve Prziborowski is a 14-year veteran of the fire service and a Fire Captain with the Santa Clara County (CA) Fire Department. He is also the fire technology coordinator at Chabot College in Hayward (CA), where he has been instructing fire technology and EMS classes for 12 years. He is on the Executive Board for the Northern California Training Officers Association, currently serving as the first vice president, and scheduled to serve as the president in 2007. He is a state-certified chief officer, fire officer, master instructor, and haz-mat technician, as well as a state-licensed paramedic. He has an associate’s degree in fire technology, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and a master’s degree in emergency services administration.