Be ‘That Guy’

Photo by Tony Greco.

By Robert Stumpf

Some time ago, I was fortunate to work with three instructors on developing a curriculum for Indiana’s mobile live fire training prop, which included a 53-foot trailer built by kidde fire training systems with moveable walls, gas-fueled props, a roof chop out, and a smoke generator. It’s a nice prop, and the state was diligent about making sure that those who facilitate training with it are qualified to do so. The course we designed was to be delivered before the trailer started to make the rounds to each of the 10 homeland security districts.

Over the course of our conversations, we were brainstorming a section of the presentation about fire service culture and safety. I had been tasked with developing a portion of the presentation that addressed the instructor’s responsibilities as it relates to being a role model and safely facilitating live fire training. Several times, one of us referenced this “new safety culture” to which we are trying to get more and more firefighters to subscribe.

Chief John Buckman of German Township, Indiana, asked me, somewhat rhetorically, “What is this culture you keep referencing?” indicating that we needed to define for the student what it was we want him to believe (and as instructors espouse). I recounted a story from one of my colleagues about a live burn exercise where the instructor pointed to a pile of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) in a corner just before igniting the burn set and said, “If you need an SCBA, they’re over there, but we’re just burning palettes and straw.” The comment I made was, “Who wanted to be the first guy to go over and grab an SCBA when no one else was?” Nobody wants to be that guy. Chris Walker of the FortWayne (IN) Fire Department chimed in and said, “I think that’s it, that’s what we’re talking about, you have to be willing to be that guy.”

Regardless of the likelihood of ridicule or reprimand, you have to be wiling to be that guy. It was a real “light bulb” moment; ideas starting bouncing around the room of how we could use this concept to develop the mantra of the Indiana Firefighter Training System. For the next hour or so, me, Chief Buckman, Chris Walker, and Division Chief Chad Abel of the Fishers (IN) Fire Department talked what it meant to be that guy.

It’s the same cultural shift that is at the heart of the Life Safety Initiatives, the shift that still fuels the content for Billy Goldfeder’s Web site, the one we hear about in the keynotes at the Fire Department Instructors Conference and the Fire Research Institute. It boils down to one thing: Be willing to do the right thing at the right time.

So who is that guy? It’s you, it’s me, and it’s all of us. We are no different than anyone else; we want our brothers to like us, not to ridicule us in front of others. We want to fit in, and we certainly don’t want the older guys to ostracize us for being different. But it isn’t just the younger guys; it’s the old salt who’s been around long enough to know the only fire service constant is change. And there is a higher price paid when we don’t speak up—when we overlook obvious and dangerous actions or omissions.

That guy wears personal protective equipment (PPE) every time, all the time; it’s on, it’s clean, and it’s complete. There are no melted eye shields worn like a trophy, no soot stained gear, no missing hood. That guy buckles up not just on emergency response, but every time. Who more than firefighters know the ramifications of not belting in? And we can’t buckle up?

Walker shared a story of making a run where the officer wouldn’t buckle up, and Chris, a private at the time, told his officer that if he didn’t belt in, he was going to “write him up.” That is FEARLESS. Chris told his officer after the response, “I’ve wanted to work with you for a long time, and I don’t want someone doing something stupid, running into us, and have something happen to you before I got the chance to gain from your experience” Wow!

That guy paid enough attention in size-up, strategy and tactics class, and during building construction to make an educated risk-benefit analysis of the situation, and he isn’t going to commit valuable resources (the firefighters) to save a building, car, or any other piece of property. We save lives, not sofas.

That guy is real about what’s killing us. He is exercising, he quit smoking, he’s eating better, he’s trimming down…and he expects the same of others. Walk the walk. Get up and get moving.

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That guy has probably known, been touched by, or heard about one of our members who took his own life. It hit close to home for me in 2013 when I learned that one of our seasonal wildland firefighters had committed suicide. “Dirty Joe,” as we knew and loved him, was a hard-working, big-smiling, dependable brother who, in retrospect, had more going on at home that any of us ever knew. That guy takes the time to get to know the people with whom he’s working, personally and professionally. He cares about his brothers enough to dig deeper, to listen, and to ask questions. That guy quashes the notion that reaching out to an employee assistance program is a sign of weakness, and who won’t tolerate a culture that ridicules someone when life seems to be kicking him when he’s down. That guy recognizes between the stresses of the job and regular life; there are moments when we all could stand to be propped up by our brothers and sisters, and he is there to do the lifting; he’s not afraid to ask to be lifted.

That guy believes in designating an incident safety officer and rapid intervention team, not on paper, and not as an afterthought; on fires, accidents, rescues, training, and wherever the chance exists for one of our own to take a risk. Train them properly, and listen to them.

That guy empowers those around him to speak, to be heard, and to be treated as though his input has value, regardless of his role in the organization. You don’t need time on to have something valuable to say. Anyone who’s heard the story from our brothers in Seattle regarding the Pang Warehouse fire knows this.

Every one of us was hired to improve our organization; regardless if it was simply for staffing, but you were chosen over someone else because it was thought that you would make the department better and more capable to suppress a fire, to answer an emergency medical services call, and so on.

Don’t be nothing more than a warm body in a jumpseat. Make a mark. Have an impact. Yes, we are going to call you names, shortsheet your bed, or flour you after a shower. But we also need to let you know that we value your opinion, thoughts, ideas, and fears.

Most of us have seen, heard, been to, or even taught a class that emphasized this same theme; there is very little of this stuff that is new. But go a step further than having the courage to be safe. Be FEARLESS. Firefighters have a reputation for doing great things in the face of fear. Do this. Be that guy.


Robert Stumpf is a 17-year member of the fire service, currently in Berthoud, Colorado.

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