By RICK LASKY
Whether you are a volunteer, career, or part-time firefighter, the fire service is an incredible profession filled with people who want to serve others and who would do anything for one another-even for a complete stranger! Firefighters are special, and it’s okay to say that.
Not everybody can be a firefighter. A lot have tried but, for one reason or another, some could not do the job. It takes someone special to do what we do. Not everybody can get up at two o’clock in the morning, leave his home or firehouse, crawl into someone’s burning home, and attempt to locate a fire and find trapped or missing occupants while wondering if the building is going to fall down on top of him or collapse underneath him. Not everybody can jump out of bed at midnight, respond to a motor vehicle accident, and try to cut someone’s 16-year-old daughter out of a car while she screams for her life. Not just anyone can run out the door and race to someone’s apartment or house and try to breathe life back into a 10-month-old baby. It’s okay to think to yourself, “What I do is pretty special.”
THE BEST JOB IN THE WORLD?
So, if this really is the best job in the world, why do we still have some who treat it so poorly, seem to hate doing it, and get enjoyment out of making those who love the job miserable? You know this firefighter, the one who seems to be there for just a paycheck or to carry the pager because it’s “just a job.” He has a bad attitude, doesn’t want to train, and has to be pulled off the recliner when there is work to do. He hates EMS and thinks it’s a hassle to give tours to kids in the firehouse. He treats the “frequent flyer” poorly, complaining about how this person calls 911 to pick him up off the floor and put him back in his chair or bed.
For example, years ago a young firefighter was giving me an early morning ride to the airport after I gave a lecture to his department and neighbors. I apologized to him for having him get up so early to drive me, and he replied that he was already up making EMS runs.
He said, “Yeah, we’ve got this frequent flyer, this old lady that falls out of her chair every day at 3:15 in the afternoon. Every day at 3:15 like magic … boom! There she goes, and we respond, pick her up, and put her back in the chair. It’s always at the end of the day when things are winding down and we’re finishing up.” He continued complaining, “She never goes to the hospital. We do a refusal, she signs it, we leave, and tomorrow we’re right back there picking her up again.”
I said to him, “If you were smart, you’d get there about 3:10 and catch her! Did you ever think that maybe she’s just lonely? Did you ever think of maybe holding her hand and pouring her a glass of tea while your partner does the refusal and just visiting with her for a few minutes?” There is so much more to being a firefighter, to being a “public servant.”
The company officer more concerned about cleaning his golf clubs or about what the officer on the other shift is doing is always bad mouthing the other shifts or other volunteers. The officer who refuses to train his firefighters, hides from them, or doesn’t know them is a morale killer. If you love something about the job, he’ll knock it and ridicule you for it. He yells and screams for no reason, constantly complains about the chief, and refuses to lead.
After one of my former lieutenants saw me studying a fire service book, he waved his checkbook in front of me and said, “Lasky, the only book that is important is this one. I’m here for finance-not romance!”
You know him. The chief officer or chief who doesn’t care about his people, would sell them out for personal gain, and would cut and run when the going got tough at city hall when budget cuts were coming, leaving his people when they need him most. Who would you rather have there during those tough times? Someone who is going to fight for you, or the mayor’s “Yes Man”?
You train your firefighters for emergencies on the fireground, but do you prepare them on how to survive in the firehouse … and how to deal with him? Do you show them how to stay positive and passionate about this great profession?
Dealing with him will always be challenging because he will always exist. One of the keys to working through this is realizing that you are not alone. I have been there, and the key is how you react (or not react) or, if you’re an officer, how you lead him.
At one time, this firehouse nuisance was into the job. Maybe he worked for a poor leader, or maybe no one ever took the time to work with him to keep him on the right track. We all need that strong influence occasionally. A good leader leads by example, but that’s easier said than done. It takes what I refer to as the “Three Ps” of firehouse survival.
THE THREE Ps
Passion. You need to love what you do; you cannot let anyone steal your passion for the job. Years ago, I was complaining and whining about a bad boss. Chief Tom Freeman then came to me and said, “Rick, you’re kind of a big guy; I never took you for a weakling.” We debated this for a minute or two, and then he said, “I’ve never met a firefighter who would let someone break into their pickup truck or home and wouldn’t want that mutt arrested and prosecuted! But, they’ll let a mutt reach into their heart and steal their passion about this great profession. That’s being weak!” And he was right. I am indebted to him for that advice.
Firefighters are some of the bravest people I know. They will put it all on the line for a fellow member, but they’ll also let someone who doesn’t care about what they do reach into their hearts and steal from them the very thing that makes a firefighter so special: the passion it takes to be good at what you do and makes firefighting the best job in the world. Stay passionate, and never let him win or see you sweat.
Perseverance. Never compromise your principles, your beliefs, or your value system. Once you give in to “his” behavior and negativism, you’ve stopped being a person of integrity. Without integrity, nothing else matters. But, don’t ever find yourself being insubordinate. If he is a person of rank, you don’t have to respect the person, but you do have to respect the rank.
Stay positive, no matter how difficult that may be. If you don’t, you may find yourself getting more and more frustrated with him and his put-downs and ridicules, all because you love working and hanging out at the firehouse. You may even find yourself slowly caving in. This frustration and anger will force you to create an attitude that can be almost as damaging as his. You will start complaining about him instead of talking about how great the job is or about the fire you extinguished the other day. You may become one of those with the “other” attitude that brings people down. Your fire service family is there to listen, console, and offer advice, but after a while they will throw their arms up and say, “Every time he opens his mouth, it’s about him!” After a while, they will become worn out by it. They may still love and respect you, but they just want to have a good day at the firehouse without hearing any complaining. This is when you become part of the problem and not part of the solution.
Patience. The toughest of the Three Ps, patience, takes a lot of work and effort. In most cases, you didn’t hire him, and you can’t fire, demote, or unelect him. Nothing you do or say is going to change or move him in a better direction or into a more positive role within your organization. Sometimes you just have to wait him out. Wait until he leaves, retires, quits, or goes to another firehouse, shift, and so on.
Surprisingly, in some cases, he may come on board and become a better contributor to the team. He may realize that what he’s been doing is counterproductive to the mission of the team or that he has been a problem. When he does, welcome him, and let your feelings go. As hard as it can be-and it will be-give him a chance. What’s past is the past.
Surround yourself with good, positive people, the kind who love the job, have fun at it, and know what it means to be a firefighter. If you can’t find them in your firehouse, look in another station, on another shift, or in another department-anywhere you can find someone that exudes positive energy.
Being a firefighter, a company officer, a chief, or a leader is not easy. It’s hard and, at times, makes you want to give up and throw in the towel. Remember the Three Ps. Make the right decisions because they’re right, not because they are popular; popular decisions are almost always the wrong ones. Do what you can with what you have, and stay the course. Worry about the things you can fix, not the things you can’t. Stick to your values, and always remember why you are there in the first place, to be a public servant. We are the fire “service” for a reason.
● RICK LASKY is a 34-year fire service veteran. He retired as a chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department in 2011 after serving there for 12 years. He began his fire service career as a firefighter in the suburbs on the southwest side of Chicago. While in Illinois, he received the 1996 International Society of Fire Service Instructors “Innovator of the Year” award for his part in developing the “Saving Our Own” program. He served as the co-lead instructor for the H.O.T. Firefighter Survival program at FDIC for more than 10 years, is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering, and is on the FDIC advisory board. He is the author of Pride and Ownership-A Firefighter’s Love of the Job (Fire Engineering) and is the co-host for the Fire Engineering Talk Radio show “The Command Post.” He has an AAS degree in fire science from Columbia Southern University (CSU) and was selected as the CSU 2012 Distance Education and Training Council Outstanding Graduate.
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